Spiritual based meditation may help preserve cognitive function

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Authors: Anthony P. Zanesco, Brandon G. King, Katherine A. MacLean, Clifford D. Saron

Year: 2018

Title: Cognitive Ageing and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training

Summary: Can meditation lead to improvements in cognitive abilities such as attention? Meditation research generally suffers from a shortage of longitudinal studies, therefore this seven year project should be applauded. Building on their earlier work which examined the effects of a three month meditation retreat on cognition. This investigation assessed the benefits of sustained practice in the following years. The findings appeared to demonstrate that age related decline in reaction time was negatively correlated with the continuation of meditation practice (regular practice leading to slower decline), following the intensive three month retreat. The research broadly concludes that the cognitive benefits achieved through periods of intensive activity, may receive protection against age related decline from regular meditation practice.

In the original retreat at least two forms of meditation were undertaken, a basic mind training and a compassion/empathy based practice, both embedded in a spiritual tradition. Inevitably it is problematic to evaluate the benefits of each of the practices or their interaction effect. As an experienced meditator I should underline that by their very nature, participants willing and able to undertake retreats of three months and sustain meditation practice over several years are probably unrepresentative of meditators generally, let alone the wider population. Limitations of ecological validity are discussed in the study. There was also insufficient information provided regarding the meditation history of participants, their levels of accomplishment, the degree of their theoretical training and information regarding secondary or special practices undertaken since the retreat.

Link: https://link.springer.com

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Deepening crisis in meditation research

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Two leading researchers from contemplative science respond to a critical study of meditation and mindfulness research. In declining to address the important theoretical issues known to exist in contemplative science has an opportunity been missed?

Authors: Richard J. Davidson and Cortland J. Dahl

Year: 2018

Title: Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation

Summary: The article begins by applauding the critique of Van Dam et al. This is only to be expected, published meditation and mindfulness research often falls short of the standards normally required of journal articles in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The authors address the five points raised by the original article in a very linear fashion, failing to grasp the underlying issues. The same issues that have dogged meditation research since the launch of MBSR. However summerising the five rebuttals contained in the paper:

1 – The criticisms of meditation research reflect weakness in psychological research more generally.

2 – Contemplative practices are varied and scientific enquiry is only able to understand a few limited forms.

3 – Mindfulness and contemplative practices were not originally therapeutic in nature

4 – Research has failed to understand meditation in a relevant context.

5 – Mobile technology may be able to resolve some of the methodological issues.

Link: http://journals.sagepub.com

Critique: It is important to note that Davidson and Dahl are leaders in this field but if they permit, I offer some observation as an experienced meditator and trained psychologist.

Psychology does not appear to understand meditation, the misappropriation of the term mindfulness has led contemporary meditation research into a dead end. The study of MBSR and related families of mindfulness are legitimate objects of clinical enquiry and experimental investigation. They have however little connection with mindfulness in its many forms as practiced in spiritual traditions. Buddhism is not one unified tradition, there are different approaches to what one might call mindfulness, these extend from ‘bare attention’ through to ‘shine’ as practiced in Tibetan traditions. Typically shine is engaged with after many years of stable foundational practice. The reliability of the terms ‘mindfulness’ in relation to MBSR needs some further work. The conceptual fusion of authentic spiritual practice and contemporary cognitive mindfulness is demonstrably confusing.

In a traditional context a meditation master may undertake decades of practice and years of study to understand meditation on theoretical and experiential levels. This degree of knowledge and precision is largely absent from meditation research, despite the fact that there are many accomplished meditators among the contemplative science research community. The tensions between duality and non duality exist in almost all contemplative practice, yet these understandings are almost completely absent from scientific research into mindfulness and meditation.

Contemporary mindfulness is neither an authentic meditation practice (in the traditional sense) nor a fully validated CBT. It has somehow fallen between the cracks. The problem is how can it now be successfully repositioned?

Posted in Buddhism, CBCT, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, MBSR, mindfulness | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Compassion and palliative care

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Authors: Claudia Orellana-Rios, Lukas Radbruch, Martina Kern, Yesche Regel, Andreas Anton, Shane Sinclair and Stefan Schmidt

Year: 2017

Title: Mindfulness and compassion-oriented practices at work reduce distress and enhance self-care of palliative care teams: a mixed-method evaluation of an “on the job“ program

Summary: Notwithstanding the extensive body of work exploring meditation and mindfulness, there is a shortage of studies that address the potential of compassion based interventions in the workplace. A national survey of palliative care practitioners had established that for 42% of respondents, frequent patient deaths was a challenging aspect of their work. Although many people report beneficial effects from delivering compassionate care, extensive exposure to suffering can be a problem for workers. This investigation recruited participants from a palliative care center in Bonn, Germany.  Ten weeks of training in meditation combining a number of elements including, mindfulness, loving kindness and tong-len was provided. A range of mixed measures were used to establish the benefits of the practice including, a battery of self reporting questionnaires, semi structured interviews and a physiological measure. In conclusion no evidence that participants experienced an increase in compassion was observed. However improvements were reported by participants in areas including self-care and emotional regulation. The was no significant change to the cortisol levels taken as part of the trial.

Given the complex nature of introducing compassion into this particular work environment, the mixed method approach should be commended. Where compassion, loving kindness and mindfulness are brought together as an ‘omnibus’ approach, a degree of epistemological plurality is likely to be required to gain a full understanding of the results. Reliably evaluating the effects of one approach (such as compassion) in such a trial, can be a challenge in itself. However to integrate three approaches (mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness) into a working environment, then to understand their effect individually and collectively, is making great demands of the self reporting instruments.

It should be noted that in a recent meta study investigating the pro-social effects of meditation, the teaching of the meditation practice by a co-author of the research was seen to be an influential factor. The precise nature of the meditation taught in this case is unclear and may, to some extent, be related to the individual approach of the teacher. The assumption that different kinds of meditation, such as compassion (tong-len), all fit within an easily replicated framework is perhaps the result of the theoretical uncertainty withing psychology towards contemplative science. There is still a shortage of data exploring how interrelated constructs such as loving kindness and compassion might influence behavior in the workplace. In this regard the study provides useful information that may help the understanding of these constructs in particular working environments.

Link: https://bmcpalliatcare.biomedcentral.com

Posted in Buddhism, compassion, health psychology, LKM, loneliness, mindfulness | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Methodological problems in mindfulness research

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Authors: Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias & Inti A. Brazil

Year: 2017 (print), 2018 (online)

Title: The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Summary: This systematic meta review explored the effects of meditation and mindfulness on five types of pro-social behavior (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice). The study contended that although compassion and empathy were mediated by meditation, the other three factors were not. Further, that compassion levels were found only to increase when a co-author of the study was the meditation teacher or when the control group was a passive (not active) waiting list. The study highlighted a number of key problems in the ongoing study of meditation, particularly the methodological rigor often used.

However weaknesses in the scientific investigation of meditation tend to be linked to the absence of robust theoretical frameworks. For example inconsistent definitions of mindfulness and meditation. Meta studies in this field can reflect wider patterns but risk drawing together forms of meditation that may in effect, be quite different. The authors are correct to highlight the ‘theoretical mist’ surrounding meditation research and the failure of science to treat meditation as either a secular or spiritual practice. But despite citing architects and theorists of contemporary meditation, the authors fall short of explaining how the pseudo spirituality of contemporary secular meditation arose or is being sustained.

Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20299-z

Posted in CM, cognitive psychology, compassion, critical psychology, mindfulness | Tagged | 2 Comments

Compassion, meditation and depression

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Authors: Jennifer S. Mascaro,  Sean Kelley, Alana Darcher, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Carol Worthman, Andrew Miller, Charles Raison

Year: 2018

Title: Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression

Summary: The body of evidence demonstrating that compassion training offers significant benefit to its practitioners (and the wider community) is growing.  This particular study investigated cognitive based compassion training’s (CBCT) relationship  to the wellbeing of medical students in their second year of training. Compassion is a particularly important issue to people working in clinical settings. Because of the nature of their activity, a degree of compassion is desirable if not essential. However there is concern over issues connected to ‘compassion fatigue and ‘burn out’. A total of 59 students engaged in the research, those participants that received CBCT reported increased compassion, and decreased loneliness and depression.

Perspective: Contemplative science, health psychology

Link:  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2016.1233348

Posted in CBCT, compassion, depression, loneliness | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Measuring loving kindness-compassion

Title: The development and validation of the Lovingkindness-Compassion Scale (LCS)

Author: Hyunju Cho, Seunghye Noh, Sunghyun Park, Seokjin Ryu, Ven Misan and Jong-Sun Lee

Year: 2017 (online), 2018 (print)

Summary: The thorny issue of effective trait and state scales for both loving kindness and compassion is far from resolved in psychology. In fact if anything it is less clear now than it was a decade ago. One of the problems can be attributed to attempts to merge or unify concepts with subtle differences and specific cultural weighing factors. This paper explains some of the express differences between compassion and loving kindness from a classical perspective. And justification for drawing them together is found in the ‘boundless state of mind’. However it is reasonable to ask in what way can the unlimited nature of mind be evaluated using limited psychometric measures? To what extent the LCS can align two distinct concepts in one scale will emerge over time.

The three reported highlights of the paper were

  • The LCS reflects the Buddhist concept of lovingkindness-compassion.
  • The LCS consists of three-factor with fifteen items.
  • The reliability and validity of LCS were adequate within our study.

This study was based on the definitions of compassion within a branch(es) of the Theravada tradition. So it should be stated at the outset the precise meanings established as a starting point may not reflect the whole family of Buddhism. This is not to say that other Buddhist schools (Zen, Mahayana or Vajrayana) might not wholly or partially share the definitions used. Simply that the definitions may not be representative of the wider Buddhist community. It should also be noted that the measures therefore may not reflect the explicit, not dual and absolute compassionate approaches found elsewhere in the Buddha Dharma.

Nevertheless this paper established fifteen items within three factors through the use of exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). The results suggest that LCS was significantly correlated with self-compassion, compassionate love, social connectedness, empathy and satisfaction with life. This study used 469 university students as participants and the data supports the reliability and validity of the LCS to measure lovingkindness-compassion.

An extremely useful investigation into compassion and loving kindness, raises several important questions.

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691730733X

Posted in Buddhism, compassion, loving kindness, personality, religious studies, Theravada Buddhism | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How much does science know about meditation?

Science and meditation

Science and meditation

Blogging about a related issue at Meditation for Health prompted me to think about how much does science really know about meditation and mindfulness. Leading scientists in the field state that empirical meditation research is at a relatively early stage. But relative to what? Surely not the efforts of the scientific community, thousands of scientific studies have already been published that explored meditation and/or its presumed operationalised components. It should also be considered there there is a vast body of traditional texts available, documenting many aspects of contemplative sciences over the last two thousand years. Contemporary research should also have benefited from the millions of current practitioners, including meditation masters with great experience of practice and underlying theoretical frameworks. It is hard to imagine more auspicious conditions for the study of meditation, so why is the research struggling to make significant progress?

After I had been meditating for five years I asked a traditional meditation teacher what the goal of my particular practice was. She stripped away the esoteric imagery in which the practice was framed and explained the likely result of my efforts. In particular she emphasized the importance of my motivation. The idea that the method alone is not the practice is central to many forms of meditation and contemplation. In fact traditional literature from Tibetan Buddhism makes it clear that progress in a particular method may require the application of significant levels of compassion or non-attachment. It is not my suggestion that a western scientific approach cannot fully understand the processes engaged in different forms of meditation. But rather it might be time to start to think about the phenomena underpinning meditation in a more complete way, even within cognitive psychology or neuropsychology. In some traditional schools, meditators are discouraged from evaluating the progress of others. But when you meditate cheek by jowl in a community of meditators for years, you may inevitably observe differences in the effects of the same meditation practice on different people.

Whilst the capacity of practitioners (individual differences) is a known factor in the experience of meditation. An individual’s motivation is also central to the benefits of a practice. This is a paradigm for all meditators and mindful practitioners in all settings. Unless a scientist can integrate the, enthusiasm, scepticism and goals of the meditator into the input part of the equation, great uncertainty regarding the output is inevitable.  In a survey of meditators and mindfulness practitioners (Morris, 2017) that included both type of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:        

Motive %
To improve my health 12
To improve my general well-being 43
For spiritual/religious reasons 22
As a lifestyle choice 6
Because of the influence of others 3
Any other reasons 14

There are reasons to suppose that the motivation of a meditator is a significant influencer on the results of a practice. The empirical approach has a great deal to offer the investigation of meditation, it can help to construct reductionist models able to identify the elements contemplative practice. But we are perhaps at a point when a fuller understanding of meditation and meditators needs to evolve.

 

References

Morris, S. (2017), An exploration of the relationship between wellbeing and meditation experience amongst meditators and mindfulness practitioners. The Open University, Milton Keynes. Unpublished

Posted in cognitive psychology, mindfulness, neuroscience, religious studies | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Mirror neurons – embodied cognition

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Macaque monkeys were used for the first mirror neuron experiments

Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.

Year: 1992

Title: Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study

Summary: Research emitting from the University of Parma in the 1990s changed cognitive science forever. This was the place where the mirror neuron was identified. At first sight it might not appear to have a direct relevance with meditation, but mirror neurons demonstrate a characteristic of the human brain central to understanding how we interconnect with each other. Under certain conditions we are directly affected by what we see other people do. This phenomenon is not restricted to humans.

If we see others undertaking a behavior that reflects something we have done, it will fire our mirror neurons as if we were doing it. This effect is not linked to species it is about how closely observable behaviors correspond  our own motor repertoire.

Stephen Gene Morris

In the original experiment a macaque monkey demonstrated mirror neuron activity when a human experimenter undertook tasks that it had been trained to do. The implications for meditators include:

  • Firstly it is a weakening to self-other duality, humans and animals can, under relatively common conditions share action potentials in mirror neurons.
  • Secondly there is a clear relationship between what we see and how this affects our brain.  It seems plausible that if we see kind acts that we ourselves have done in the past our mirror neurons will fire as if we were administering the kindness. The same would apply for unkind acts.

I have written a paper on this experiment which can be made available on request. The original literature (linked below) is very readable but it is the first in a series of the Parma Mirror Neuron Experiments.

Perspective: Embodied cognition, neuroscience, mirror neurons

Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00230027

Posted in cognitive psychology, dualism, embodied cognition, nondual awareness, phenomenology, social connectedness | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Great Divide – Non Dual/Dual Meditation

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Author: Josipovic, Z.

Year: 2014

Title: Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation

Summary: Most experienced meditators engaged in traditional practices may have an understanding of nondual awareness (NDA). It is the state beyond the simple good-bad, my-your dichotomy that may be fundamentally different from dualistic thought and indeed dualistic meditation. In terms of methodologies, meditation systems can be dived many different ways. But one of the most important and least researched categorisations is between the dual and nondual approaches. Josipovic offers an insight into NDA and explains why and how it is different from other forms of meditation.

Supported both by contemporary experimental evidence and traditional explanations (to some extent). Josipovic presents a study exploring a potential explanation for NDA through the activity in intrinsic and extrinsic networks during three different forms of meditation (NDA, Focussed Attention and Fixation). Results indicate a reduction during nondual meditation of the negative correlation between the intrinsic and extrinsic networks when compared to both fixation and focussed attention.

Editor’s Note: The scientific exploration of meditation in all its forms has been hampered by a (much reported) failure to establish authoritative theoretical frameworks. Josipovic has provided an approach which appears to successfully encompass the traditional explanations of NDA, supports phenomenological accounts and is integrated within a neuroscientific context.

Perspective: Contemplative science, neuroscience

Link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12261/full

Posted in Dzogchen, intrinsic network, mahamudra, NDA, nondual awareness | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Putting the Meditator at the Centre of the Research

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(The research is now complete, thanks to all who participated)

Do you meditate or practice mindfulness?

I am currently undertaking an academic survey into meditation and wellbeing. I would like to ask meditators over the age of 18 to complete a short anonymous questionnaire about their practice (it should take around ten minutes). The research has been ethically approved and conforms to all the usual academic norms.

This important research seeks to capture the meditation and mindfulness experience of practitioners of different levels of experience and backgrounds. Based on meditators self reported insights, this projects follows recent signposts in contemplative science putting greater emphasis on the experiential nature of mindfulness and meditation.

Regards

SGM

Posted in Buddhism, cognitive psychology, concentration meditation, Dzogchen, health psychology, LKM, loving kindness, MBCT, MBSR, mindfulness, social psychology, Zen | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment