Are Holen, expert in posttraumatic stress and founder of a meditation school
interviewed in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia


    the original interview in Spanish.

64 years of age, I am Norwegian, married, with two children. Psychologist, MD, PhD in medicine and specialist in psychiatry. Professor of neuromedicine at the University of Trondheim. Education is the foundation of a country’s prosperity. Believe in a non-punitive God.

No buddhas and incense

    A man with a wide spectrum of interests, he studies the effects of meditation, deep relaxation and posttraumatic stress. He was called in to the USA after 9/11 and to Thailand after the tsunami in order to work with the initial psychological treatment of the victims, and has done research at the University of California. In 1966 he founded ACEM, a voluntary non-profit organisation, a non-religious meditation technique for personal development, developed by doctors and psychologists, active in several countries including Spain. You can read about the scientific studies at

In 1980 an oil platform sank in the North Sea between England and Norway. Of 212 people, 89 survived, whom I have interviewed several times.

So you have been following them for 30 years. Any conclusions?
I have studied posttraumatic stress after catastrophes for many years, and have seen that treatment must be given to people directly after the catastrophe. This is because after the first examinations you can predict their further development and what treatment each individual should receive.
How is one affected by meeting death face to face?
Generally, people have a greater appreciation for life, friends, and leisure and will become more concerned with their family’s well-being.
Is one’s belief in God strengthened?
This is something that caught my attention. Generally, people stop believing after a catastrophe.
You also study meditation’s effect on the brain.
I started doing yoga and meditation when I was 16, one year after my father, also a physician, became ill. Meditation gave me contact with my inner life, with a better understanding of my feelings. This result was fascinating seen from an existential perspective.
And you decided to share these experiences?
I founded the Acem International school while still a student, two years before ’68, so there were many who wished to learn to meditate, and we grew quickly. My method is not based on any religious belief or philosophy; it is explained in scientific terms and always in relation to modern psychology.
Tell me more.
In scientific journals, we have published research which tries to find out what makes the meditation technique work.
In the beginning, the 70’s, the physiological changes that meditation brings about were studied and demonstrated; slower pulse, slower breathing, changes in muscular tension, normalization of blood pressure, and a reduction of oxygen consumption.
But yours study the brain.
Yes, we published an article last year that shows that during Acem meditation brain waves show not only relaxation, but also signs of psychological processing.
What does this imply?
When you meditate, particular areas of the brain produce theta waves, which shows stress reduction. In the long run this indicates a reduction of anxiety, an increase in mental capacity, encourages fantasy and creativity, reduces pain, creates a state of well-being and stimulates endorphin production.
This is fantastic.
Meditation can bring us in contact with memories that are suppressed and hidden in ourselves – strong emotions, forgotten traumas – in a way that makes integration of these memories possible.
Meditation modifies the brain in the long run?
Yes, it contributes to change. How you experience, how you perceive others, how you relate to others, can be changed through meditation. Recent research shows that those who meditate have thickened areas of cortex. Other studies show that those who meditate live longer.
Meditation increases immunity.
When stress is reduced, cortisol levels decrease and the immune system is improved, yes, and this can influence several other factors, including the growth of some kinds of tumor cells. This influences the anticancerogene immune system, and the heart.
And all of this without incense and Buddha statues.
The Acem technique focuses on a sound which you repeat internally, and which has no inherent meaning. You do not concentrate your attention on anything specific, but let thoughts come and go. The point is not to try to achieve relaxation; the brain does so without our trying, as a reflex, not as a goal.
If you don’t willfully concentrate and instead let ideas come and go, how do you solve that?
Relaxation allows personal, unresolved issues to surface in the consciousness, and thereby resolve aspects of them – not by intellectual means, but through an attitude, which allows you to see things in a different way. Meditation allows a certain amount of creativity to become manifest.
What other changes does it bring about?
It’s possible that aspects of your self become manifest, which you have never realized, which you have repressed through your choices in life.
This is similar to psychoanalysis.
Yes, there are many similarities between psychoanalysis and meditation, the difference is that you talk in psychoanalysis.
They say that words heal, but in the case of meditation…
Meditation works at deeper levels, on a preconceptual level. In psychoanalysis you can talk for hours on end and not change anything, but when one manages to reach the deeper levels of consciousness through meditation, one increases the probability for change.
To me this says that meditation is the poor man’s psychoanalysis?
It’s more accessible for everyone, also for those who are very busy.
How often should one meditate?
With thirty minutes twice a day one can achieve personal growth.

Interviewed by Ima Sanchís for La Vanguardia 8 April 2010