Scientific understanding of meditation and mindfulness
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 that 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 types of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:
To improve my health
To improve my general well-being
For spiritual/religious reasons
As a lifestyle choice
Because of the influence of others
Any other reasons
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.
Morris, S. (2017), An exploration of the relationship between wellbeing and meditation experience amongst meditators and mindfulness practitioners. The Open University, Milton Keynes. Unpublished
Mirror neurons may have significant implications for meditators and spiritual practitioners.
Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.
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.
Meditators know the most about meditation, if science ignores them they miss a trick.
(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.
How to think about the research of contemplative science
Title: Conceptual and methodological issues in research on mindfulness and meditation.
Authors: Davidson, Richard J.; Kaszniak, Alfred W.
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
What does mindfulness mean, how is the term used and how closely does it relate to the practice?
Title: Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness
Author: Georges Dreyfus
Summary: Among the issues that are publicly manifesting in the research of ‘mindfulness’ are fundamental problems achieving reliable and consistent understandings of the term itself. Definitions of mindfulness are becoming an increasingly thorny issue both as a cognitive process as well as a soteriological path. Some accounts of mindfulness express the concept as ‘present-centered non-judgmental awareness’, a view that that is challenged in this critique by Georges Dreyfus. Dreyfus argues that the essence of mindfulness is connected to the phenomenon of ‘sustained attention’ and can, to some extent engage evaluative processes. Whilst acknowledging merit in the modern definitions of mindfulness, this essay highlights significant discrepancies with traditional Buddhist accounts and more general uncertainty regarding the wider theoretical understanding.
Perspective: Cognitive psychology, contemporary Buddhism, religious studies
Problems in the scientific research of meditation and mindfulness.
Authors: Richard J. Davidson, Alfred W. Kaszniak
Title: Conceptual and Methodological Issues in Research on Mindfulness and Meditation
Summary: As western psychological investigation into meditation and mindfulness increases, concerns are being raised about how to understand and integrate the wide ranging findings that are being published. Mindfulness is a very general term for one meditative approach which can include a number of distinct psychological phenomena. This paper discusses the conceptual and methodological difficulties in researching this area. Addressing the challenges of creating and subsequently evaluating findings, which by their very nature may only be fully appreciated in the first person.