When his unit was deployed to Iraq in 2008, the study was put on hold. But Cochran, now 50, continued to meditate in Iraq, putting aside 15 minutes a day to practice. He says that many others in his unit did the same and that some who hadn’t had the training also took up meditating when they saw how it seemed to help with stress.
After the soldiers returned from Iraq, they were retested. University of Miami neuroscientist Amish Jha, one of Stanley’s collaborators, says that those who continued practicing meditation in Iraq showed improved working memory in follow-up tests. The researchers were surprised, Jha says, because stressful experiences tend to degrade working memory.
Cochran says he believes meditation helped him stay much calmer during his second tour in Iraq. “The first tour, I was freaked out all the time,” he says. “There was so much static. With meditation, you’re much more in tune — what is a target, what is not a target. You are much more focused on what you are doing.”
He says this increased sense of control continued when he returned home. Now a battalion medical chief for a Marine reserve unit in Cape Coral, Fla., he meditates 15 minutes a day, usually during lunch. “For me, meditation was a lifesaver,” he says.
Stanley and her colleagues have followed up this pilot study with more research, funded by the Department of Defense. One study looked at 320 Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who were preparing to go to Afghanistan. At the time, they were undergoing an immersion course that closely simulated combat through realistic live-action scenarios, such as going on patrol, driving in a convoy and meeting with a local sheik. This training takes place in a mock Afghan village, a square block peopled by Pashto-speaking actors dressed in traditional Afghan clothing. As in real life, the situations turn chaotic: The sheik suddenly gets angry, or an insurgent detonates a suicide bomb.
Some of the Marines were given mindfulness training. During the immersion sessions, researchers monitored all of the Marines’ blood pressure, heart rate and breathing as well as a range of neurochemicals related to stress. The researchers found that the mindfulness group was not only calmer during and after the immersion exercises but also responded faster when a threat appeared.
This is crucial, says Tom Minor, a University of California at San Diego neuroscientist who was one of the researchers. “That was one thing we worried about: ‘Are we going to take a bunch of Marines and turn them into chanting monks who couldn’t generate a stress response?’ But they didn’t get too relaxed.”