One of the big names in psychology Philip G. Zimbaro was a guest on Skavlan, the popular talk show in Sweden. He talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment he was running in 1971 and what it revealed about the situations in which “good people are placed in bad circumstances. ” I had learnt about the famous prison simulation a few years ago from the German film “Das Experiment” (2001). (It was not exactly something one learnt about growing up in the Soviet, the whole country being basically a prison cell.)
The experiment scheduled for two weeks was interrupted after six days as the situation started spiraling out of control. Watching the film today it is hard not to draw parallels with the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib by the American soldiers.
What astonished me in Dr Zimbaro’s account was that he acknowledged how in the matter of six days he totally identified with his role of the superintendent of the prison, stopped seeing the people and saw only “prisoners”, how the only thing he cared about was that the “guards” followed their routines, although he saw the escalation of the abuse by the “guards”. Could that be?
The site dedicated to the experiment takes us on a tour around it, “uncovering what it tells us about the human nature.” I catch myself lingering over the Begin the Slide Show button. What am I about to see the proof of? That in difficult circumstances we forget about being human? (The roles of the prisoners and guards in the original experiment were assigned by chance, nobody actually wanted to be a “guard” from the beginning).
Another experiment comes to mind: two groups of volunteers (novice meditators and what I would call mega meditators – those who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditators, like Matthieu Ricard) submitted their brains for scrutiny by neuroscientists when practicing compassion meditation towards all beings. The difference between the two groups was striking, the monks showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves that are said to underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.”
So if we practice meditation for hours and hours, we can actually change the structure of the brain and become more compassionate? That if anything is a good reason enough to introduce meditation in schools and working places, right?