The Monk and the Gunshot

The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images)

When human beings are startled, we raise our shoulders and close our eyes. Our blood vessels constrict, and our pulse quickens. The startle response is a well-documented phenomenon; one of the first studies to examine it was published in 1939, and there’s even an entire book on the subject.

An involuntary reaction to, say, a very loud noise is thought to be deeply primitive and impossible to overcome. Try to stifle it, and you will almost certainly fail.

Unless, perhaps, you’re a Buddhist monk with 40 years of experience in meditation like Matthieu Ricard. Born in France, a son of the philosopher Jean-François Revel, Ricard has a doctorate in cell genetics and serves as the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama.

Researchers decided to see if Ricard, with decades of meditation under his belt, would respond differently to being startled than those of us with decades of being generally anxious under our belts. They put him in a room and asked him to meditate. Then the researchers played a 115-decibel “burst of white noise,” equivalent in volume to a gunshot. It was loud.

What they found was fascinating, but those findings have often been inaccurately reported. For instance, Andrew Weil, the lifestyle guru and founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, wrote that Ricard “was able to suppress this reflex, his face not moving a muscle.”

Likewise, according to the book Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries, Ricard “did not even move the five facial muscles that always move (at least a little) when the startling sound occurred.” Other books have similar wording.

Paul Ekman

That’s not quite true. When Ricard was meditating with a technique called “open meditation,” his facial muscles did react to the sound, though much less drastically than the faces of other subjects (and much less drastically than Ricard reacted to the noise when he was not meditating). That type of meditation had the genuinely remarkable effect of reducing his facial response well below controls, but it did not eliminate the response.

Also, a number of books and articles have strongly implied that Ricard managed to totally suppress all reaction to the gunshot-like sound, not just his facial response. A forthcoming book puts it this way: “Seemingly against all the laws of human physiology, the monk exhibited not the slightest reaction to the explosion.”

Actually, he had a measurable physiological response, though it was impressively minimal.

So why the exaggerated reports? It’s likely because, while the experiment was performed a decade or so ago, the study itself wasn’t published until this summer. All of those mentions in books and articles were based on public remarks by Paul Ekman, one of the co-authors and a retired psychology professor at the University of California at San Francisco. (The other authors were Robert Levenson, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Ricard himself, who is in the unusual position of being both a subject and a co-author.) Ekman is known for his work on emotions and facial expressions, and particularly his techniques for identifying so-called microexpressions. He’s written often about how to spot liars.

The results sat around for years, on the back burner, before Levenson and Ekman had a chance to fully analyze them. Most of the books and articles use the same quote from Ekman about Ricard: “We don’t have any idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress the startle reflex.”

I talked to both Ekman and Levenson about this. Ekman noticed how the finding has been misreported over the years. “People heard me talk about the fact that I couldn’t see the startle, and they just assumed that he eliminated it,” Ekman says. “It’s a very popular finding, and people like to write about it, but it’s wrong.”

Or at least overstated. Levenson notes that this is what can happen when results make it into the mainstream before they’re analyzed and peer-reviewed.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a remarkable, even amazing, accomplishment by Ricard. As they write in the paper, “the act of engaging in meditation can modulate a reflexive response that is located in quite primitive regions of the human nervous system.” That’s really something. And it can be added to the already lengthy list of meditation’s wonders.

(Here are links to a 2009 article on Ekman and an interview with him, both by The Chronicle’s David Glenn.)

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