Meditation is the Marshmallow Experiment for Adults

You already know about the marshmallow experiment, but have you considered that you are part of an even bigger experiment? The “meditation experiment” has been going on for thousands of years in the East, and hundreds (if not thousands) of years in the West. It really took off in the West when the more evolved technologies of the East made their way to the shores of California throughout the 20th century. And just like the toddlers in the marshmallow experiment, most adults cannot maintain a regular meditation schedule. Myself included.Impulse control is just beyond the capacity for the toddlers being studied. They know the value of not eating the first marshmallow – they will double their reward! But maintaining that knowledge in the present moment, actually using it to be disciplined on behalf of a better future, is extremely difficult for them. Most impulsively eat that one marshmallow.

The research on toddlers and young children who do not take that first marshmallow, who control their impulse, is clear. Their overall health and life conditions are far better than their counterparts, well into adulthood. And when brain imaging studies are done on the children, the ones with a thicker pre-frontal cortex have the self-control to live today for a better future.

The same is true for adults and meditation – we know the value of meditating. It has near-immediate anti-stress benefits. It helps you see through the chaos of your daily life. It has medium-term benefits on hormone balance, cardiovascular health, and emotional wellbeing. It has many long-term benefits on performance improvement and – most shockingly – cortical thickness. Your brain – the most important part of your brain, the pre-frontal cortex – literally gets thicker when you meditate consistently over a long period of time.

Toddlers are basically learning to do one thing – the exploration of, communication about, and control over their impulses. But adults must sift through the paradox of choice that our information superhighways send to our brains every day. The “one thing” that adults are doing at this moment in history is coming to terms with the competing worldviews that help us decide what is relevant and what is not.

The great “meditation experiment” of adulthood is all about this territory. Whatever it might say about impulses, it is more existential in nature than the marshmallow experiment. But it is just as all-consuming for adults as the marshmallow experiment is for toddlers. One look at your email or social media feeds will prove this to you.

Will we, as a species, see that meditation is an activity that all worldviews should agree upon? Will we be able to leverage the true power of the brain? Just as the toddler has competing impulses, we have competing streams of information, pulling us in many directions. And the lowest commonly shared agreements are sex and consumerism (no wonder these are often paired together).

Our dilemma is coming to terms with competing worldviews, on behalf of our own individual and collective futures. Meditation seems to be the only thing that does not appeal to our lowest motivations – sex and money – while also allowing us to communicate across worldviews.

As a mindfulness coach for executives, I am probably meditating more than the average person. But even I struggle with this; even I will eat that first marshmallow over and over. One of the greatest pioneers of bringing East and West together was Shunryu Suzuki, whose book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” celebrates the people who have difficulty meditating. Such people, Suzuki states, stand to gain the most benefit from meditation.

So if you are like me, and you’ve fallen off that meditation horse, just keep trying. Never stop trying. Your brain – indeed, your future self – will thank you for your effort. It may help to remind yourself, “…two marshmallows are better than one.”