Meditating military helicopter pilots

A peer-reviewed scientific study published this year shows the positive impact of meditation on personnel in two Norwegian Air Force helicopter squadrons. This was not new-age wishful thinking, or sloppy science self-reporting that some people felt good. No, this was university and Air Force doctors and scientists taking chemical measurements of salivary cortisol, testing performance on computer-based cognitive tasks, and comparing the results to a control group. The subjects were all high-performance airmen during a prolonged period of high-demand work. This is real-world stuff.

The results:

From a mixed between–within analysis revealed that the [mindfulness training] participants compared to the control group had a larger pre to post increase in high- and low-cortisol slopes, and decrease in perceived mental demand imposed by the go–no go test.

The conclusion:

[Mindfulness training] alleviates some of the physiological stress response and the subjective mental demands of challenging tasks in a military helicopter unit during a period of high workload.

It totally worked! And this wasn’t weeks in an intense winter in a Zen monastery; it was a pretty standard mindfulness stress reduction program. After a 10-hr comprehensive introductory course, there were weekly 3-hr sessions and twice-weekly, 20-min audio-guided sessions. Totally doable by anybody.

Exactly how this ancient practice, stripped down to its secular core, changes the brain and the body is unknown. But unlike brain training apps or other dis-proven interventions, it seems to work on a special intersection of peace and action that is vital for martial arts — and flying.

A capacity to remain both calm and alert is not a combination humans have naturally inherited through the millennia. Therefore, [mindfulness training] has been suggested to be of particular value for several groups striving for excellence in taxing environments.

If evidence this strong was presented that a pill improved performance, we’d all demand prescriptions for the new wonder drug. Which makes me wonder, why aren’t more of us sitting for 15 minutes a day using a good meditation app (like Headspace) on our phone?

Is 15 minutes a day looking quietly inward too much to get better at flying? At life?


Reference: Meland, A., Ishimatsu, K., Pensgaard, A. M., Wagstaff, A., Fonne, V., Garde, A. H. and Harris, A. (2015). Impact of Mindfulness Training on Physiological Measures of Stress and Objective Measures of Attention Control in a Military Helicopter Unit. International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 25(3-4), pages 191-208. Published online 2016 May 10. doi: 10.1080/10508414.2015.1162639

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