Methodological problems in mindfulness research

Problems in how meditation is researched are highlighted in this meta study. But the paper stops short of explaining why its lost in a ‘theoretical mist’.

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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 behaviour (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice). The study contended that although there was evidence that 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 consistent application of appropriate methodologies.

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

Effects of Mindful-attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-meditative State

Authors: Gaëlle Desbordes, Lobsang T. Negi, Thaddeus W. W. Pace, B. Alan Wallace, Charles L. Raison and Eric L. Schwartz

Year: 2012

Title: Effects of Mindful-attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-meditative State

Summary: There is a long standing association between the amygdala and emotional processing. Previous research has indicated that in a meditative state amygdala response to emotional stimuli could be reduced. However this investigation points to the possibility that the effect of meditation training on emotional processing may exert an influence beyond the meditative-state. Participants were given training in either Mindful Attention Training (MAT) or Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT).

Perspective: Neuroscience

Link: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292/full

Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise

Authors: Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, Richard J. Davidson

Year: 2008

Title: Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise

Summary: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) investigation of the insula and anterior cingulate cortices in empathic response during loving-kindness, compassionate meditation. The contrast between rest and meditation states indicated increased activation in amygdala, right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS). The findings when taken in their entirety suggests the cultivation of positive emotional states through meditation creates changes to the activation of circuitries  linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.

Perspective: Neuroscience

Link: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0001897