Committed to a greater understanding of mindfulness and meditation in all their forms.
PhD candidate in the scientific history mindfulness. Trained neuropsychologist and cognitive psychologist, also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health.
Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation. Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen based mind training.
Summary: There has been a trickle of studies investigating the health benefits of prosocial behaviour in recent years. And research into altruism has remained at the periphery of psychological enquiry. A search of academic databases reveals greater scientific interest in ‘self-compassion’ than ‘compassion for others’ in recent years. The paper by Wang et al. poses some problems for current thinking in psychology. That selfless acts may hold a key to reducing the experience of pain. But, in common with all experiments involving complex human behaviours, the findings of this paper need validating through replication.
As a starting point, this study built on the foundations of two pilot investigations. Its cognitive insights are underpinned by the results of brain imaging technology (fMRI). The researchers found that altruism relieved pain in both experimental and clinical settings. The clinical participants were cancer patients suffering from chronic pain. The goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that altruism could reduce physical suffering. In this regard the results were significant. People undertaking altruistic acts did experience less pain than participants in control groups. More experienced experimental psychologists might like to comment on the methods, but they appear to be robust. We should treat such radical findings with caution of course, but also bear in mind this is not a new idea. Compassion and altruism exist in every culture, they are universal human traits.
Successful repetition of these experiments would open up new areas of research into pain management. Whilst also signposting novel understandings of the mind. For example, a link between pro-social behaviour and mental and physical wellbeing more generally. This latest study should encourage scientists and clinicians working with compassion meditation.
“If found to be reliable, these findings may put behavioural sciences on a new trajectory.”
An ever changing relationship between psychology and Buddhism reveals the transient nature of mindfulness meditation in the West.
In the Western history of Buddhist theory and practice, traditional forms of Buddhism have been relatively stable during the twentieth century. New Buddhist traditions and Buddhist inspired movements have emerged in that time, but many of the established schools have demonstrated a surprising continuity. However, since 1900 psychology has undergone radical transformations, leading to changes in both mainstream and peripheral approaches. Therefore the current engagement between Buddhism and psychology, in the form of the science of mindfulness, should be seen as transient and simply the latest stage in the relationship.
Research into the history of the West’s engagement with meditation led me in pursuit of a book written by Caroline Rhys Davids1 in 1914. I haven’t yet tracked down a copy of this work. But several published reviews can be found through resources such as Google Scholar. Without reading Davids’s treatise I wouldn’t wish to suggest it was representative of any or all of Buddhist psychology, that’s not my point. Rather, the reviews of her work appear, in some quarters, to accept that Eastern understandings of mind might be able to contribute to Western scientific knowledge. In one such appraisal, Walter Clark from the University of Chicago wrote in 1916:
The study of Buddhist psychology is of much interest to us because of the fact that it gives us a carefully worked out analysis of mental phenomena from the point of view of an entirely different “tradition of thought.” Its parallelism to and difference from our own psychological thinking opens up many problems which are of the utmost importance in the study of thought in general.2
Clarke’s review indicates apparent scholarly respect for Eastern sciences of mind. Suggestive of the potential for collaborative rather than appropriative perspectives of Buddhist understandings. There have been several Western scholars that demonstrate an appreciation of traditional (Eastern) forms of psychology, but these are mainly to be found in the humanities rather than the sciences. A scientist investigating traditional meditation methods rarely links their work to underlying Buddhist concepts, citing relevant texts.
By drawing attention to the evolving nature of psychological sciences it is a reminder that Western science is in a state of flux in some regards. That what counts as ‘scientifically validated’ psychology today, may well be washed away by a ‘post-cognitive’ movement over the next decades. Conversely, much traditional Buddhist thought and practise has a core of knowledge that extends back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. In this regard, Buddhist writings on mind, consciousness and meditation could be regarded as an underutilised resource in the study and use of meditation technologies.
1 Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature. By Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1914. 212 pages. 2s. 6d.
2 The emphasis is mine. Clark, Walter E. “Buddhistic Psychology.” (1916): 139-141.
There are strong indications that meditation and mindfulness practice may have a positive impact on dementia and cognitive decline.
Authors: Russell-Williams, J., Jaroudi, W., Perich, T., Hoscheidt, S., El Haj, M., & Moustafa, A. A.
Title: Mindfulness and meditation: treating cognitive impairment and reducing stress in dementia
Summary: Mental health concerns linked to an ageing population include, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), dementia, mild cognitive impairment and subjective cognitive decline. We should say at the outset that when people are diagnosed with early-stage dementia, increased stress levels leading to poorer health more generally may follow close behind. This notion was reflected in the aims of this review.
There is evidence that meditation technologies can boost brain function and structure, but there is a lack of research investigating the benefits to populations already suffering from declining cognitive performance. This narrative review examined ten studies that explored the benefits of meditation on dementia-related memory conditions. The study looked across a range of scientific papers to identify trends and patterns. This should not be confused with experimental replication (the repetition of experiments to confirm scientific reliability).
The reviewed studies were seeking to understand if meditation could influence the cognitive performance, quality of life and perceived stress of people already experiencing different degrees of memory-related cognitive decline. The good news is that all of the studies demonstrated significant or ‘moving towards significant’ results. Collectively, these findings indicated that meditation could lead to
a reduction in cognitive decline
an increase in functional connectivity in the brain
a reduction in perceived stress
an increase in quality of life
The bottom line is that meditation appears able to improve brain function in people already suffering cognitive decline. Observed changes are likely to be linked to structural alterations in the brain. These positive developments can, in turn, lead to reduced levels of stress and improved quality of life.
“These preliminary findings offer causes for optimism in the treatment of cognitive decline. However caution must be expressed until results have been reliably replicated.”
The problem in talking about the concept of nonduality is that it is everywhere, all the time, but it is rarely recognised or understood.
Where to begin? Where to begin when there is no beginning? To merely approach the concept of nonduality, several volumes of definitions, meanings and precedents could be used to establish the common ground required for a meaningful introduction. Consider that in traditional training systems an ‘introduction’ to nonduality can comprise a decade or more of study and meditation. Even then an intellectual understanding might not be achieved, and a reliable experiential appreciation is even less likely. But despite the challenges, this is such an important issue that I’m attempting to outline a basic framework illustrating the inseparability of a recognition of nonduality and meditation. Both to write this short essay and also as a foundation for further studies in this area.
From the academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more. However, as this is a discussion of duality and nonduality in contemplative science, I can try a short-cut and align these thoughts to theoretical frameworks from traditional meditation systems. Crucially these established understandings have stable ontologies with reliable supporting and supportive epistemologies. Such theoretical frameworks can be found throughout traditional meditation schools, but are explicitly taught in nondual approaches such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra. This is not to give the first or last word on nondual understanding to a particular tradition, school or sect. The tension between duality and nonduality put simply, is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. It is not owned invented or discovered by any one individual or group. Although a sustained investigation by adepts over many centuries means that extensive bodies of knowledge have already been created.
As most forms of meditation shape the cognitive processes underpinning conscious experience, they can be considered as tools able to influence our concepts of duality-nonduality. However a point of clarification is required, everything we think say or do also exerts force upon our ability to recognise the dualism that permeates our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to nondual awareness (NDA). So when we talk about meditation in a traditional context, nonduality is generally (intrinsically and extrinsically) part of the process and method being used. It is also important to stress that meditation is a very broad church, some forms may not articulate any position in relation to dualistic concepts. The motivation of practitioners is also a key factor in this discussion, people may meditate for many years without ever encountering the path to NDA. Conversely, several people have reported ‘accidental’ insight into NDA without the use of any of the methods known to mediate conscious experience. Further, traditional texts from established meditation schools set out the foundational processes of NDA, which can be seen to be congruent with the scientific understandings of deliberate cognitive transformation.
Contemplative science (the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness built up over the last half-century), is yet to get to grips with understanding the precise nature of the dual-nondual relationship. One of the limitations in the scientific study of traditional forms of meditation is the very existence of dual and nondual consciousness. The assumptions of positivism are that both the scientist and the science are objective, an assertion that has been demonstrated to be dualistic and sometimes unreliable. Therefore, despite its fundamental relationship to meditation, NDA challenges the ontologies of several of the leading approaches within psychology, including contemplative science.
So how to explain dualism to a person committed to a dualistic view of the world? For this, we can return to the preliminary discourses of how does the mind watch itself? The classic cognitive response to this question is that the executive function (EF) holds this task (of self-monitoring). But in reality, we know at the level of psychology and personal experience, the EF is both participant and observer of the drama of our lives. This simply means that most humans flit between the dual and nondual states without necessarily being aware or having any choice in the matter. From a contemplative science point of view, this takes us back to the drawing board, because it is clear we often see the world in both dual and nondual frames according to a range of causes and conditions. NDA isn’t an abandonment of nonduality, it’s just the experience-based understanding of its role as part of our conscious engagement with the world.
Preliminary work by scientists like Josipovic and scholars such as Dunne has started to indicate that nondual meditation methods may have a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But a key point to make is that NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). However, I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness (that characterises most forms of meditation), has been observed scientifically, let alone understood. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of contemplative science or cognitive psychology. The full potential offered to humanity by nondual forms of meditation is dependent on grasping the nature of highly elusive mental states, considered to be the ‘result’ of meditation practices.
The good news for both meditation scientists and secular practitioners is that a meaningful understanding of experience-based NDA is not essential for the research and practice of meditation methods. The preliminary limitations in the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness are not due just to a failure to understand NDA, some important progress has been made. But for a fuller appreciation of the potential of meditation, explicit and implicit nondual mental processes will have to be first observed and then understood.
For a basic introduction to non-duality download the NDA podcast here.
Growing challenges to the science of mindfulness is forcing a rethink in how we measure and understand the benefits of meditation.
Authors: Grossenbacher, P. G., & Quaglia, J. T
Title: Contemplative cognition: A more integrative framework for advancing mindfulness and meditation research
Summary: The growing tide of criticism directed against the science of mindfulness, from within the scientific community, is driving a sense that something has to change. Just what that something is, remains unclear. In this paper from 2017, Grossenbacher and Quaglia proposed a new approach for understanding mindfulness and meditation as a useful first step in improving reliability in contemplative science generally.
A consensus is emerging that long-standing and evidenced problems in mindfulness research are linked to both theoretical and methodological issues, put simply what mindfulness is and how it can be understood. The authors argue that establishing an integrative theoretical framework will offer meditation scientists the tools to deliver more stable and comparable findings. Thus supporting the reliability of individual experiments and presenting greater opportunities for replication. It’s contended that by utilising the psychological constructs of attention, intention and awareness a contemplative cognitive framework (CCF) can be constructed, which would deliver an overarching view of the impact of meditation practice. Grossenbacher and Quaglia state that the CCF could
overcome discrepancies in mindfulness research (a very bold claim)
consider motivational and contextual aspects of meditation practice
create greater opportunities for epistemological plurality
deliver a common operational language, benefitting meditation and mindfulness research in general
Although falling short of a systematic review, the authors offered some welcome clarity in understanding the current limitations in this field. In addition, their discussion of the pressing need to consider the effect of motivation and context in meditation practice is particularly timely. The paper provides an exposition of attention and intention in a clear and informed manner. And I’d recommend this study to anyone wanting to know more about metacognition and meditation practice.
However one of the problems with meditation research, in general, is the failure to study traditional forms of meditation with a clear understanding of their ontologies and epistemologies. Any contemporary methods which claim a theoretical relationship with traditional practices, must include a credible understanding of what the original practices are. Only then can the modern translated meditation methods be scientifically framed, by understanding which operational components have been added or taken away. Without a clear awareness of what the original practice was, trying to reverse engineer a theoretical framework would appear to be a challenging process. Until we have a reliable phenomenological understanding of the traits practitioners cultivate in traditional mindfulness, a contemporary theoretical framework necessitates a degree of guesswork, even with the support of neural correlates.
The CCF may prove to offer a useful toolkit for new forms of meditation, unrelated to and independent from traditional methods. In could allow for hypotheses to be created and tested. But without greater certainty of the operational components of traditional practices, discussions regarding the metacognition of Buddhist or Buddhist inspired meditation is perhaps premature.
Grossenbacher, P. G., & Quaglia, J. T. (2017). Contemplative cognition: A more integrative framework for advancing mindfulness and meditation research. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1580-1593.
Earlier this year Plos One took the step of retracting a well known and widely cited mindfulness related study.
This particular study is a first for the Science of Meditation blog. Whilst we have featured a number of papers that have highlighted methodological problems in meditation and mindfulness research, this is the first time that we have drawn attention to a retraction of a peer-reviewed study.
The basis for the retraction is outlined in detail on the Plos One website, but we have paraphrased the three main points.
The handling Academic Editor shared an affiliation with three of the authors, although this didn’t emerge until post-publication.
Two of the authors hold or had held positions at an institute offering mindfulness related products and services in clinical contexts.
The paper has a number of errors including pooling of results which led to double counting and incorrect effect estimates in figures contained in the study.
There’s not a lot more we need to add to the identified issues, they speak for themselves. However, when considered as part of the ongoing crisis in mindfulness research they make troubling reading.
A general defence used in cognitive psychology when the findings of mindfulness studies are criticised is, the peer review system is self-regulating. That when studies are found to be below the expected standard, they are usually rejected during review. Or at the very least other experts working in the field have the opportunity to raise concerns in print. This retraction challenges this basic notion. Significant issues with both the methodology and the editorial process can endure, thus, have the ability to influence the scientific and popular understanding of mindfulness. According to Google Scholar, this Gotink et al. study has been cited over 400 times, the citing publications, in turn, used by thousands more papers. The details provided on the Plos One website indicate the study has received 50,000 views.
Rather than simply criticize this study or the journal, I would like to ask what this retraction show us about the way that meditation technologies are being treated by clinical and scientific institutions?
Authors: Gotink, R. A., Chu, P., Busschbach, J. J., Benson, H., Fricchione, G. L., & Hunink, M. M.
Title: Standardised mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare: an overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs
Summary: This is a research paper that (at the time of writing) had been retracted by PLOS ONE.
“In light of the methodological issue and concerns about the validity of the study’s results, the PLOS ONE Editors retract this article. We regret that these issues were not fully addressed prior to the article’s publication.”
An extensive explanation of the reasons behind the retraction are published on the Plos One website which can be reached by following the link below.
New research suggests that compassion and empathy-based meditation and mindfulness may be able to increase prosocial emotions and behaviour.
Authors: Luberto, C. M., Shinday, N., Song, R., Philpotts, L. L., Park, E. R., Fricchione, G. L., & Yeh, G. Y.
Title: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion and Prosocial Behaviors
Summary: Contemplative scientists may be aware of several recent meta-studies that have challenged the methodology and theoretical frameworks of meditation and mindfulness research. However a review by Luberto et al. recently found that compassionate and loving-kindness practices can positively influence prosocial emotions and behaviours. The key finding was that in the 26 reviewed studies, meditation was linked to a positive effect on self-reported and observed prosocial measures. Although this meta-study bucks the recent trend it should be noted that many of the known problems highlighted in earlier strategic reviews (methodological flaws, reliance on waiting list or no treatment control groups, weak theoretical frameworks) have not been fully addressed.
There is a growing understanding that repeated novel behaviours such as meditation training in meditation naive participants are correlated to new or adapted neural function and structure. This then places a much greater emphasis on using a meaningful control intervention from which to evaluate the effects of meditation training. The idea that compassion or empathy based meditation can increase prosocial feelings or behaviours when compared to ‘no intervention’ reflects an underlying weakness in meditation research generally. Comparing a meditation intervention to ‘no intervention’ offers us limited insight into the potential clinical value of a meditation technology. This synthesis included 15 waiting list or no intervention control group studies among the 26 featured experiments. But it should be stressed that significant results were found in studies using both passive and active control group interventions.
The paper included a Risk of Bias Assessment, a welcome inclusion given recent findings of the failure of scientific objectivity in some meditation and mindfulness research. Luberto and colleagues established the risk of bias using the Cochrane Collaboration guidelines. They reported that 11 of the 26 studies had a low risk of bias, 12 offered a medium risk with just 3 demonstrating a high risk. Eight potential domains for bias were evaluated for each of the reviewed studies, where the risk of bias in any of the domains could not be established a rating of ‘unclear’ for that domain was recorded. It should be noted that every study had a rating of ‘high’ or ‘unclear’ in at least one domain and the mean number of ‘unclear’ ratings was 40% of the total possible. Further, that in the risk evaluation of the 8 domains for each of the 26 studies (208 potential ratings in total), none were regarded as offering a medium risk of bias. Although I am unfamiliar with this approach to evaluating bias it would appear that an absence of data indicating potential bias in any domain is discounted from the overall classification. So individual studies with unclear data regarding potential for bias in areas such as blinding, incomplete results or selective reporting could still receive a low risk of bias rating!
“Is the absence of clear data masking real world risks of bias in meditation research?”
Stephen Gene Morris
Following a traditional approach, 26 papers with a total of 1714 participants were identified from academic and scientific databases. A selection criterion was used to deliver randomized controlled studies in a range of populations who were trained in loving-kindness or compassion meditation. Results for self-reported and observable outcomes indicated significant small to medium effects. Of note is that “subgroup analyses also supported small to medium effects of meditation even when compared to active control groups”. The study also contained insights into potential physiological and neural mechanisms linked to the meditation training. Limitations of this review included the wide range of meditation methods encompassed and the variable lengths, intensities and modes of training undertaken by the respective participants.
Within this paper (and much of the available research) definitions of compassion appear to be fluid. Put simply there are few signs that contemplative science draws upon authoritative definitions of compassion either in the meditation methods used or in establishing the effect of the training. There also appears to be potential for a disconnection between the concepts integrated into the meditation methods and the instruments designed to measure compassion and empathy. Whilst the data presented offers a cautiously optimistic picture of the potential of meditation to improve positive prosocial emotions and behaviours, established concerns over methodology and theoretical frameworks remain unresolved.