June 13, 2012 | 3
In the series, “Worth Pitching?” I’ll describe research I’ve come across in the course of science journalism and whether or not I pitched the idea to editors as a story. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?
Meditation is often thought to help expand the mind, opening up the limits of consciousness. Now research suggests that meditation can indeed help one keep an open mind, preventing people from falling into mental traps that prolong problem-solving, findings appearing in the journal PLoS ONE. So is this worth pitching?
The research is rooted in experiments based on something with the intriguing name of the Einstellung water jar task. Einstellung literally means “attitude” in German — in this case, it refers to the creation of a mechanized state of mind, a propensity to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though there may be better ways of solving the problem. Think of the saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
So, the experiment. Volunteers were first shown three jars on a computer screen, labeled A, B and C. Each jar was marked as capable of holding a specific amount of water. The participants had to pour a specific amount of water into a cup by using these three jars with the simplest, shortest solution possible.
At first the participants were given a task where the problem was best solved with jars A, B and C given the strategy B minus A minus 2C. This was later changed so that they could solve the problem with the strategy B minus A minus 2C, or more simply with either the strategy A plus C or A minus C.
The participants in this experiment included 12 volunteers with at least three years each of experience in Vipassana meditation, as well as 15 people with no meditation experience. The researchers found that experienced meditators were significantly more able to switch strategies than people without meditation experience.
In another experiment, scientists took 64 participants with no meditation experience and randomly split these participants into two groups of equal size, one of which was given six weeks of meditation training, the other not. Two months afterward, those who received meditation training were significantly more able to switch strategies on the water jar task than those who did not. This kind of experiment helps show that meditation appears responsible for this effect, as opposed to, say, whatever factors might drive one to seek meditation in the first place.
So how might meditation training help avoid rigid, myopic thinking? The researchers note that meditation training often stresses avoiding reliance on past experiences and living in the present. Past research on meditation suggests it can help people switch perspectives, thus cultivating a kind of mental flexibility.
What good might this research serve? The researchers speculate that an ability to see alternative solutions to problems could be helpful in a number of arenas — from physicians making correct diagnoses to suicidal people seeing a way out of the problems that bedevil them.
This research has a lot going for it in to get picked up as news, in my opinion. The research seems solid, and shows how people can alter their minds in surprising, beneficial ways. The experiments are neat — puzzle-solving seems to me to be a good way to involve audiences. And it fits into a wider context of meditation research, which has attracted increasing attention, due in no small part to luminaries such as the Dalai Lama supporting such work.
So do I think this story is worth pitching? You bet. In fact, I’ve pitched it to four different news outlets before it got picked up.
It still puzzles me as to why so many places turned it down at first. I think it’s interesting — clearly, if I’ve pitched it four times. What we have here is an interesting example of what I think is a newsworthy story, coupled with a clear difficulty in getting it accepted. At first the editor who did accept the story was reticent, but she told me she did in fact find it really interesting once she started editing it.
Maybe the story got turned down because there’s been a glut of work showing the benefits of meditation? Or maybe it’s because meditation is seen as a kind of touchy-feely practice that might smell like quackery to some?
Why do you think this pitch took so long to get picked up? I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.
You can email me regarding Worth Pitching? at email@example.com.