Dec 6, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Excerpted from The Washington Times: The Army and Marines have since commissioned separate studies of larger groups of troops receiving variations of M-Fit training, the results of which currently are under scientific review and likely will be published in the next few months.
“The findings in general reinforce and extend what we saw in the pilot study,” said Ms. Stanley, an associate professor of security studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “These techniques can be very effective in increasing situational awareness on the battlefield, in not having emotions drive behavior, in bolstering performance and resilience in high-stress environments. I’ve seen effects in my own life.”
A former Army intelligence officer, Ms. Stanley served in Korea, Macedonia and Bosnia. Subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she struggled after leaving the military and enrolling in graduate programs at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of prescription medication, she began to research mindfulness and quickly became convinced that the mental and emotional health benefits of meditation could help not only her, but also other service members.
Ms. Stanley wrote a paper for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), essentially arguing that meditative techniques similar to those used by Buddhist monks were both necessary and appropriate for today’s military — from drone pilots coping with information overload to infantrymen conducting dangerous and stressful counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
“The initial concerns form the military were, ‘Is this going to be a waste of time, and is this going to interrupt my finely honed rapid-action drills?’” Ms. Stanley said. “The concerns coming from the mindfulness side were, ‘If you teach them these skills, and they become more open people, will it undermine their ability to armor up psychologically? A few people even wondered if I was trying to make, quote, ‘better baby-killers.’”
Undaunted, Ms. Stanley sought support for a pilot program through her connections in the Army — the same Army that in the mid-1980s conducted a Trojan Warrior Project, in which 25 Special Forces soldiers nicknamed the “Jedi Knights” received six months of meditative and martial-arts training that helped them perform better than their peers on psychological and biofeedback tests.
She found an advocate in Maj. Jason Spitaletta, a then-Marine reservist who was a psychology graduate student in non-military life. Mr. Spitaletta read Ms. Stanley’s DARPA paper and brought it to the attention of his superiors, who agreed to participate in the 2008 study.
Over eight weeks of 12-hour days otherwise devoted to mock firefights and exhausting field exercises, 31 Marine reservists were taught breathing exercises and yoga poses, how to focus their attention and how to prevent their minds from wandering. More than once, they could be seen outdoors, sitting cross-legged and practicing meditation.
Amishi Jha, the researcher who evaluated the troops, found that the service members in the program ended up with improved moods and greater attentiveness — and that the individuals who spent additional time meditating on their own saw the biggest improvements.
“It’s like working out in the gym,” said Ms. Jha, the director of contemplative neuroscience for the University of Miami’s Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “Right now, the military has daily physical training. Every day, they get together and exercise. But the equivalent is not given to the mind. The more [these troops] practiced, the more they benefited.”
Why the cognitive boost? The answer lies in neuroscience. Previous studies have shown that habitual meditation:
• Changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain;
• Strengthens the neural circuits responsible for concentration and empathy;
• Shrinks the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls the fear response;
• Enlarges the hippocampus, an area of the brain that controls memory
• In a recent, incomplete study of Marines taking an M-Fit course — the one Sgt. Hampton participated in — University of California at San Diego and Navy researcher Chris Johnson took blood and saliva samples from the participating service members and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan their brains.
• According to a report in Pacific Standard, the troops recovered better from stressful training, while their brain scans showed similarities to those taken of elite Special Forces soldiers and Olympic athletes.
“Basically, there are parts of the brain that work differently in high performers,” said Robert Skidmore, director of operations for the Alexandria, Va.-based Mind Fitness Training Institute. “It’s possible to train our minds to process things differently. With eight weeks of training, working memory capacity increases.”
Essentially the short-term, scratch-pad system we use to manage relevant information, solve real-time problems and regulate our current emotional state, working memory is roughly equivalent to random access memory in a computer and functions on a daily basis like money in a bank account: Use it, and it depletes until it can be replenished.