These are overly-simplistic and tragically misinformed headlines.
And unfortunately, yoga practitioners are some of the worst about falling prey to the antics of hype-loving journalists. As much as I love that there’s such an interest in science in our community, I have to say that most articles attempting to explain the findings of neuroscience to yogis irritate me to no end.
I think part of the problem is that when we run across a scientific finding that appears to confirm our existing view of the world we are less likely to rationally assess the claims being made. And what we don’t realize is that those headlines have a set of unwieldy assumptions hidden behind the words.
So before you go re-posting that next ‘Science Proves ____ Works’ article, consider these 5 things all yogis should know about science:
1. There ain’t no spirit in science.
The very premise that neuroscience rests most of its claims upon is this: The mind is the brain. Simple as that. There’s no “vital energy” that gives you life, no Higher Self that’s reincarnated from body to body. You are, very simply, your flesh. Take a look at what Francis Crick, the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the DNA molecule, had to say about who (or what) “you” are:
“You—your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will—are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
According to neuroscience, if it can’t be measured… it doesn’t exist. And since “chakras,” “prana,”, and other esoteric-sounding concepts the ancients referred to in their texts on yoga don’t reveal themselves using the current tools of neuroscience, most researchers would deem them a bunch of hooey. So when “Science proves yoga works” (who is this Science guy anyway? I’m dying to meet him!)…. well, not exactly.
2. Yoga changes your brain. . . And so does brushing your teeth.
Yes, yoga changes your brain. But so does every single other thought, action, or behavior you repeat over time. The brain is tremendously plastic; you create new neural pathways anytime you do something novel… and if you do it over and over again, you better believe those pathways will become deeper and change the structure of your brain over time. It’s calledneuroplasticity.
But that bestows absolutely no credibility to yoga, meditation, or any other spiritual practice. So what if meditating changes your brain? What’s it doing for your life?
3. Science doesn’t “prove” anything.
A single scientific experiment never — and I mean NEVER — definitively proves anything. That’s not how science works.
How come? Well, to start off with, one of the first things you’ll learn in a basic research methods class is that any scientific experiment will undoubtedly be convoluted with extraneous variables. Think of an extraneous variable like interference on a radio. When you try to tune into a particular signal, you don’t just hear the signal you’re interested in, but also extra static from other signals being broadcast on that channel. That static can very easily distort the findings of a scientific experiment.
Let’s take that idea to a real world example. Let’s say a scientist is interested in figuring out whether doing 30 minutes of yoga a day improves the mood of depressed individuals. The signal we’re trying to tune into here is the relationship between yoga and mood. The problem is that there’s all kinds of interference that can alter that signal.
For instance, let’s say at the end of the study the researcher does find a significant improvement in mood. How do we know that the improvement was due to the yoga and not to the instructor’s loving and compassionate presence? Or perhaps the improvement was due to the fact that our participants were no longer so socially isolated — because the yoga was done in a group setting? Those, my friends, are extraneous variables. And there’s LOTS of these in studies on yoga and meditation. I can tell you from experience, yoga is not an easy topic to study scientifically!
Here’s another bit of interference to consider: The measuring devices scientists use don’t always give very precise measurements. One measure of mood psychologists use quite a bit is something called a self-report questionnaire — a survey that asks study participants to rate their feelings on numeric scales. The problem with self-report is that if I ask you to fill out a scale about how you’re feeling, your answers will be affected by what you think I want to hear as well as what you want to believe about yourself. This is something psychologists call ‘social desirability concerns.’ To put it simply: We’re rarely completely honest when a researcher asks us to share our feelings.
4. Brain imaging doesn’t measure your thoughts.
Contrary to popular opinion, brain imaging technologies are not a direct measure of your thoughts or feelings. You know those pretty pictures of brains “lighting up” all kinds of pretty colors? Well, in my opinion, they’re one of the most misleading toolsjournalists use to lure readers to their articles.
Pictures have a powerful effect on the mind. Something about seeing a brain “changing” before our own to eyes seems to make it all the more real. What most yogis don’t realize is that those images do not depict brain activity per se, but rather the magnetic characteristics of blood in about twenty peoples’ brains. Say what?! Let’s break it down, Iyengar-style:
fMRI (functional magnetic imaging) is one of the most sophisticated and popular imaging technologies used in neuroscience today. Neuroscientists have a lot of tools in their toolbox, but this one in particular measures the amount of oxygenated blood flow in different regions of your brain.
What does oxygenated blood have to do with brain activity?
Well, as you probably remember from high school biology class, when you inhale your lungs bring lots and lots of oxygen molecules into your bloodstream. Your circulatory system then bathes the rest of your organs and tissues with oxygen-rich blood, and those sweet little O2 molecules are crucial fuel for processes like — you guessed it — brain activity. Yes, it really is all about the breath!
Where does the magnetism come in?
Neuroscientists have figured out a way to measure whether blood in different areas of your brain has oxygen based on its particular magnetic characteristics. Blood with less oxygen (deoxygenated blood) gives off a stronger magnetic fieldthan oxygenated blood (thanks to hemoglobin). So, in very simplified terms, what fMRI does is (1) shoot giant radio waves through your skull and (2) compare the magnetic echoes (resonances) that bounce back. From those echoes, scientists can determine which areas of your brain have oxygenated or deoxygenated blood at a given time.
Why should we care whether blood has oxygen or not?
In theory, we should find deoxygenated blood in brain regions where neurons are active. The idea is that when neurons fire, they use oxygen to acquire energy.
But here’s the kicker! Many researchers are starting to question whether fMRI is really a dependable measure of brain activity. See, the oxygen content of blood may be altered by other types of cells and activities in your brain (not just neurons firing — more on this here). Plus, the statistical methods used to calculate results in fMRI have come into question… and areeasily manipulated by over-ambitious scientists. This doesn’t mean fMRI studies are completely invalid (the beauty of the scientific process is that we replicate research and use lots of different tools before accepting something to be “true”), but it’s important to keep in mind that they’re not as clear-cut as those pretty pictures made them look.
If I lost you in all that, here’s the big takeaway: Brain images can be severely misleading. Neuroscience studies are vastly oversimplified by the press. Even science is chock full of uncertainty (and that’s not a bad thing!).
5. Scientists are biased too.
Scientists by themselves are not objective. Personal biases, funding organizations (pharmaceutical companies,governmental institutions, and even the military), and pressure to uphold the status quo (i.e. do research that supports existing theories) have a strong influence on the topics and methods of scientific research today. When I realized this as ayoung and developing researcher, I began to question the findings of many studies cited by the popular press. What I found rocked the very foundation of my “faith” in science.
I believe the scientific method to be one of the greatest intellectual contributions the West has made to the world, but my experience has been that science today is not always practiced with integrity. I have seen researchers fudge data. I have seen scientists crumble under the thumb of powerful funders who demand positive results. In short, I’ve seen how the pressure to make money off of human suffering (“your sadness is a brain disease… here, let me give you a pill for that!”) has eroded the validity of a beautifully comprehensive method for understanding the world around us.
The public treats today’s scientists like gods.
The white lab coat has become synonymous with genius, power, great upholder of “Truth”. We forget that the practice of science is carried out by human beings with all the same faults and frailties as Johnny-down-the-street. Researchers have caught red-handed lying about the results of their studies. Corporate interests have become so engrained into the structure of our academic institutions that it’s ever more difficult to conduct experiments not skewed by watchful funders. Many professors are so busy trying to achieve tenure and churn out as many publications as possible that they lack time to sit back and just wonder… think outside the box… consider the possible cracks in our existing theories about how the world works.
Now that does all this mean we toss up our hands and say “Science is useless! Let’s just think positive thoughts and meditate our way to a a cure for cancer”? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary, I believe scientific research is an enormously valuable tool. My intention with this article is not to disparage research, but to encourage yogis to get more informed and involved in conversations about science. Read the research studies on yoga and the brain. Subscribe to a neuroscienceblog. Educate yourself.
I’d also like to see more scientists communicating directly with the public in language they understand, so regular people aren’t being asked to accept the findings of science on faith. Wasn’t it Einstein who said, “If you can’t communicate it simply, you don’t understand it well enough“?
Moreover, I think we could all benefit from a bit more transparency in research. I love the idea many science bloggers have proposed: do away with the hierarchical peer-review system and create an online review process in which other scientists can respond to papers, with comments weighted based on their publication records.
I want to be clear, I’m not at all trying to suggest we need a different method for examining the natural world altogether. I think modern science, as well as many of the other contemplative traditions, provide a fantastic method for investigating both the natural world and our subjective experience. My goal in this article was to point out how most REPORTING of science falls short — it often creates an illusions certainty and infallibility that fail to capture what’s actually happening in research labs.
A more transparent system that sets the stage for more accountability and honesty among scientists would, in my opinion, help eliminate many of the problems I highlight in this article. Most importantly though, I think we as journalists and readers need to be willing to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties in scientific findings. There’s nothing wrong with saying “maybe”, “it’s most likely”, or “we just dont know yet”. Instead of “science proves yoga works”, how about “researchers find yoga improves symptoms of _____.”
That, to me, is a much more honest approach to examining the natural world.