18481Marines expanding use of meditation training
- Dec 6, 2012Marines expanding use of meditation training
Mind Fitness Training found to help troops improve
mental performance under stress of war
While preparing for overseas deployment with the U.S.
Marines late last year, Staff Sgt. Nathan Hampton
participated in a series of training exercises held at
Camp Pendleton, Calif., designed to make him a more
There were weapons qualifications. Grueling physical
workouts. High-stress squad counterinsurgency drills,
held in an elaborate ersatz village designed to mirror
the sights, sounds and smells of a remote mountain
settlement in Afghanistan.
There also were weekly meditation classes including
one in which Sgt. Hampton and his squad mates were
asked to sit motionless in a chair and focus on the
point of contact between their feet and the floor.
"A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time,"
he said. "Why are we sitting around a classroom doing
their weird meditative stuff?
"But over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better.
Physically, I noticed that I wasn't tense all the time.
It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit."
That benefit is the impetus behind Mindfulness-based
Mind Fitness Training ("M-Fit"), a fledgling military
initiative that teaches service members the secular
meditative practice of mindfulness in order to bolster their emotional health and improve their mental performance under the stress and strain of war.
Designed by former U.S. Army captain and current Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Stanley, M-Fit draws on a
growing body of scientific research indicating that regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the
immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls
fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory
and emotional regulation.
Four years ago, a small group of Marine reservists training
at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for deployment
to Iraq participated in the M-Fit pilot program, taking
an eight-week mindfulness course and meditating for an a
verage of 12 minutes a day.
A study of those Marines subsequently published in the
research journal Emotions found that they slept better,
had improved athletic performance and scored higher on
emotional and cognitive evaluations than Marines who
did not participate in the program, which centers on
training the mind to focus on the current moment and
to be aware of one's physical state.
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
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,
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
"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
Shrinks the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls
the fear response;
Enlarges the hippocampus, an area of the brain that controls
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.
Heavy cognitive tasks, such as scanning an alley for armed insurgents, require working memory. So do emotional challenges,
like dealing with the stress of leaving one's family for an
According to Ms. Jha, depleted working memory has been
linked to emotional impulsivity, prejudiced behavior,
domestic violence and alcoholism.
"It's the core resource for regulating your own behavior,"
she said. "It's not like your psychological state or mood
In the M-Fit study, troops who meditated regularly increased
their working memory capacity; moreover, they were more aware
of their physical responses to combat stress.
In a fight-or-flight situation for instance, a firefight
the pupils dilate to take in more information. Blood flows
away from the stomach and into the muscles, producing the
familiar "butterfly" sensation. Heart and breathing rates
rise. Stress hormones course through the body.
More importantly, blood flow in the brain is redirected away
from the areas that control rational thought and toward the
areas associated with instinct and survival.
"It's really hard to access rational thought during
high-intensity stress situations," said Jared Smyser, 28,
a former Marine who lives in Richmond, Va., and is training
to become an M-Fit instructor. "All this stuff happens in
your body because we've evolved to get away from predators.
But it's not really relevant in today's warfare. You need
to be calm, collected, making better decisions."
According to Ms. Stanley, meditative training can help troops
do so by increasing efficiency in the insular cortex, which
allows people to rapidly switch between thinking and unthinking states of mind.
"It can be exercised when we are attending to sensations
in the body," she said. "So a whole lot of our course is
teaching the ability to track those sensations. People come
into the course thinking it will ruin their ability to respond
fast in combat, but actually, we're enhancing their ability."
In the future, Ms. Stanley said, meditation may become as
standard in the military as rifle practice, another way of
making troops more effective and resilient. Next year, the
Marines will incorporate M-Fit classes into an infantry school
at Camp Pendleton, making the program a tentative part of its
regular training cycle.
Mr. Smyser, who served in Iraq in 2005, said military mental
training is overdue.
"It absolutely would have beneficial to me [in Iraq]," he
said. "I was very skeptical at first, but I've seen benefits
in my own life. I'm interested in working with veterans with
PTSD. And if we teach this upfront, we might be able to prevent
some of the problems we have to fix afterwards."
Read more: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/dec/5/marines-expanding-use-of-meditation-training/print/#ixzz2EIbFA5v6
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