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Marines expanding use of meditation training
Mind Fitness Training found to help troops improve mental performance under stress of war
“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.”
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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