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

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Mirror Neurons – Embodied Cognition

macaque

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

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

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.

Full details from Meditation and mindfulness survey

stonessmall

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

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Is Mindfulness Buddhist and Does its Social Context Matter?

Title: Is mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters)

Author: Robert H. Sharf

Year: 2015

Summary: Modern mindfulness meditation is often associated with the state of ‘bare attention’, paying attention in the moment, non judgementally but deliberately. This particular state is not without established precedent in different schools of Buddhism and Robert H. Sharf outlines examples from Burmese reformed Buddhism, the Chinese Chan and Tibetan Dzogchen traditions. This paper also highlights issues associated with the theoretical framework for mindfulness in Buddhism and the relationship between the transformative potential of meditation and the wider context within which meditation is undertaken.

Perspective: Religious studies, psychiatry, health psychology

Link: http://buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/sharf/documents/Sharf%20Is%20Mindfulness%20Buddhist.pdf

Posted in Buddhism, Chan Buddhism, Dzogchen, mindfulness, psychiatry, religious studies | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

No Agreement over the Meaning of the Term Mindfulness

Title: What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective

Author: Bhikkhu Bodhi

Year: 2011

Summary: The mindfulness movement is inextricably linked with Buddhism, both Buddhist teachings and meditation practice. It is then of particular interest when Buddhist scholars of the Pali Cannon, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi question one of the most widely used definitions of mindfulness; ‘bare attention’. This is not simply a philological debate regarding the development and use of the term mindfulness but also a discussion of the fundamental understanding of the human behaviour of meditation. There is also the question of the appropriation and ‘translation’ of the term mindfulness into secular contexts and the implications for both Buddhism and the secular meditation schools.

Perspective: Religious studies

Link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14639947.2011.564813?src=recsys

 

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Conceptual and Methodological Challenges in Mindfulness and Meditation Research

Title: Conceptual and methodological issues in research on mindfulness and meditation.

Authors: Davidson, Richard J.; Kaszniak, Alfred W.

Year: 2015

Summary: Notwithstanding over 45 years of research into meditation there are growing concerns about conceptual and methodological challenges in this field. There are both similar and different issues facing meditation and mindfulness but three particular questions this paper discusses are:

  • How can the first person experience be understood and studied in contemplative science?
  • Is there a reliable and consistent understanding of terms within meditation and mindfulness research?
  • What tools can be used to overcome conceptual and methodological challenges to gathering and interpreting data?

Perspective: Cognitive psychology, social psychology

Link: http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0039512

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The Origins of MBSR; Zen and Mindfulness

Title: Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps

Author: Jon Kabat-Zinn

Year: 2011

Summary: In this frank an open exposition of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s development of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) system, readers are given an insight into the background and conditions under which the MBSR concept was transposed. I use the term ‘transposed’ because that appears to be the essence of how Kabat-Zinn positions his work in the context of his experience and knowledge of Zen Buddhism. In this paper he stresses that MBSR and other systems in the mindfulness family should be integrated and consistent with the Buddhadharma (authentic teachings of Buddhism) but not constrained by the historical, cultural and religious phenomenon that exist in the societies where the Buddhadharma has been preserved and may still flourish.

Kabat-Zinn reveals his own close connection with the Zen one thousand year view and this insight perhaps gives a clue to the current academic debate whether the understanding of mindfulness as expressed in MBSR actually reflects mindfulness in Buddhism more generally. Mindfulness in its broader meaning is given a prominent role in this paper and Kabat-Zinn shares his compassionate vision regarding the benefits of the continued growth in the ‘mindfulness’ movement.

Perspective: Health psychology, religious studies,

Link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14639947.2011.564844

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Mindfulness Meta-study Reveals Conflicting Findings

Title: Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,

Authors: M Goyal, S Singh, EM Sibinga, NF Gould, A Rowland-Seymour, R Sharma, Z Berger, D Sleicher, DD Maron, HM Shihab, PD Ranasinghe, S Linn, S Saha, EB Bass, JA Haythornthwaite

Year: 2014

Summary: In this meta-analysis the effectiveness of meditation programs to impact on stress related outcomes was investigated. Randomized clinical trials where meditation was used by adult clinical populations to reduce the effect of conditions including; anxiety, perceived quality of life, depression, substance use, stress and distress were studied. The analysis included 47 trials with 3515 participants and indicated that mindfulness meditation training delivered moderate evidence of lower anxiety levels, depression and experience of pain and low evidence of improvements to stress, and distress levels. The research found little evidence that meditation had any significant impact on: eating habits, sleep, attention, substance use or positive mood. In conclusion the study found that meditation offered no greater benefit than other active treatments such as drugs, exercise or therapeutic intervention.

Perspective: Health psychology, medicine

Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24395196

 

 

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Reliability in the Definition of Mindfulness

Title: On Some Definitions of Mindfulness

Author: Rupert Gethin

Year: 2011

Summary: Rupert Gethin cites Rhys Davids as the first person to translate the concept of mindfulness from the Pali sati or the Sanskrit smrti, although he stresses subsequent difficulties in finding a workable definition of the term. According to Gethin, Nyanaponika’s definition appears to have been particularly influential in providing an acceptable explanation, particularly within the MBSR and MBCT approaches to meditation. However he argues that the Theravāda exposition of mindfulness may include elements not immediately explicit in either MBSR or MBCT; concerns are also raised over the use and understanding of the term ‘non-judgmental’. In conclusion Gethin suggests that westernized approaches to Buddhism may have contributed to a ‘succinct’ definition of mindfulness, and that the clinical applications of MBSR and MBCT may lead to further understanding of mindfulness and the implications for its practice.

Perspective: Cognitive psychology, religious studies, contemporary Buddhism

Link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14639947.2011.564843

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