A brief history of the science of meditation to 1980

The scientific history of meditation reveals that we may be overlooking many important findings from the past.

The history of meditation and mindfulness
The history of meditation and mindfulness, missed opportunities and ontological conflicts

In the last century, we have seen four or five (it depends on how you categorise the research) waves of engagement between science and spiritual/meditation technologies. Careful attention to the successes and failures of each of these waves gives us important insights into the current crisis in meditation research. Understanding how the curative potential of meditation has been altered by its relocation to science should accelerate the development of more effective interventions. However, there are few reliable accounts of the scientific history of meditation from which to evaluate our progress. This short introduction highlights some of the important and often disregarded progress from past decades.

Buddhist meditation had been migrating for two and a half thousand years. From its conceptual birthplace in Northern India, Buddhism developed many schools and approaches, all loosely tied to foundational theoretical frameworks.[1] Buddhist meditation methods became transnational spiritual practices, frequently adapted to local conditions whenever they established a foothold.[2]

D. T Suzuki (image from Wikipedia)

The relocation of Buddhism from Asia to the West gained momentum in the first half of the twentieth century, bringing Buddhist knowledge and meditation to many Westerners for the first time. But as well as introducing Zen Buddhism to many in the West, academic and Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was also redrawing the boundaries between psychology and religion.[3] Suzuki’s ideas were shaped by the time he spent living and working with Paul Carus at the start of the twentieth century. Carus was an advocate of monism, a concept expressed through the Religion of Science (RoS). [4]  The RoS held that a positivist symmetry existed between elements of science and religion. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Suzuki had become increasingly influential with Western academics and opinion formers such as Alan Wallace and Erich Fromm.

Fromm drew on Suzuki’s reformed, psychologised version of Zen to develop Zen psychotherapy in the late 1950s.[5] Fromm’s interest in Zen was part of a broader movement, and during the 1960s Eastern spiritual traditions became increasingly important in America and Britain. Promoted by poets, philosophers and global celebrities such as The Beatles, meditation in general and Transcendental Meditation, in particular, expressed the aspirations of a generation.[6] The growing Counter Culture became increasingly suspicious of mechanistic approaches to health and wellbeing.[7] Meditation and spiritual world views were seen by many as an antidote to the restlessness caused by an overbearing ‘technocracy’ and processes of dehumanisation.[8]

EEG test (image from Wikipedia)

Alongside the Carus-Zuzuki-Fromm confluence of psychology and traditional spiritual thought, there was a second, more scientific engagement with Eastern meditation traditions. Early accounts of the effects of meditation on the brain can be found in the electroencephalographic (EEG) literature from the 1930s.[9] The following decades were punctuated with several important peer reviewed papers from philosophical, psychoanalytical, physiological and psychological perspectives. A key breakthrough in the scientific understanding of the effects of meditation came with NN Das’s and Henri Gastaut’s research in 1955.[10] By studying brain wave activity alongside other physiological indicators, Das and Gastaut helped to establish the methodology that dominated meditation research for the following two decades.

EEG studies became much more commonplace during the 1960s. Researchers from several countries (France, Germany, India and Japan in particular) confirmed a correlation between the frequency and strength of alpha brain waves and meditative states. But in 1970, a study of Transcendental Meditation (TM) published in Science took the scientific and public interest in meditation to new levels.[11] Keith Wallace’s claims that alongside a range of potential health benefits, TM practitioners could access a novel state of consciousness, inspired meditation researchers for a decade. The 1970s saw a rapid growth in TM studies in experimental and applied settings. In the early 1970s, Wallace joined forces with the cardiologist and health researcher Herbert Benson. Using novel methodological approaches, Benson and Wallace provided further evidence that the practice of TM could lead to improved health and wellbeing.[12]

By 1974 Benson’s research had changed direction, he went on to describe the relaxation response (RR), a ‘grand theory’ that made sweeping claims for a relaxed cognitive state.[13] Benson aggregated operational elements from many different spiritual practices into four essential components that could deliver the relaxation response. Despite a successful book about the RR (written by Benson and Miriam Klipper), the science underpinning the hypothesis never received universal scientific acceptance.[14] By 1980 the scientific community had begun to evaluate‘progress’ made in the study of meditation. Deep-seated methodological and theoretical issues with TM research led to critical reviews from scientists such as Michael West.[15]

However, setbacks to the reputation of meditation research did not thoroughly dampen enthusiasm for the technology. Several new approaches were delivering positive findings, such as Vikram Patel’s combination of biofeedback and meditation to reduce stress.[16] At the start of 1980, there was a growing acceptance of the curative potential of Eastern non-positivist interventions, such as meditation (as well as yoga and acupuncture).[17] But a critical view of meditation research had raised questions about how psychology might best harness the curative potential of meditation.

When viewed from a history of science perspective, many of the strengths and weaknesses in contemporary meditation research are visible in previous ‘waves’. I acknowledge the Western-centric nature of this account. Some potentially important research originating outside of America and Britain, remains to be fully reviewed. But a clear conclusion from this brief summary is that if we don’t pay attention to reliable science from the past, we risk repeating the same mistakes and also missing important findings from earlier work.

(Based on an excerpt of a paper prepared for the ERC BodyCapital conference scheduled for October 2020).


[1] Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition (London: Routledge, 2005)

[2] Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006).

[3] Robert Sharf, ‘The Zen of Japanese Nationalism’, History of Religions, 33.1 (1993), 1–43 <https://doi.org/10.1086/463354&gt;.

[4] Carl T. Jackson, ‘The Meeting of East and West: The Case of Paul Carus’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 29.1 (1968), 73 <https://doi.org/10.2307/2708466&gt;.

[5] Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism (New York: Open Road Media, 2013).

[6] Anne Harrington and John D. Dunne, ‘When Mindfulness Is Therapy’, American Psychologist, 70.7 (2015), 621–31 <https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039460&gt;.

[7] Saks, Mike, ‘Medicine and the Counter Culture’, in Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003), pp. 113–24

[8] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. (Oakland: University of California Press, 1995).

[9] Walter, W. G., ‘Critical Review: The Technique and Application of Electro-Encephalaography’, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 1.4 (1938), 359–85 <https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.1.4.359&gt;

[10] N Das and H Gastaut, ‘Variations in the Electrical Activity of the Brain, Heart, and Skeletal Muscles during Yogic Meditation and Trance’, Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 6 (1955), 211-219.

[11] Robert Keith Wallace, ‘Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation’, Science, 167.3926 (1970), 1751–54 <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.167.3926.1751&gt;.

[12] Robert Keith Wallace, Herbert Benson, and Archie Wilson, ‘A Wakeful Hypometabolic Physiologic State.’, The American Journal of Physiology, 221.3 (1971), 795–99 <https://doi.org/10.1152/ajplegacy.1971.221.3.795&gt;.

[13] Herbert Benson, John F. Beary, and Mark P. Carol, ‘The Relaxation Response’, Psychiatry, 37.1 (1974), 37–46 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1974.11023785&gt;.

[14] Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper, The Relaxation Response (New York: Collins, 1976).

[15] Michael West, ‘Meditation.’, The British Journal of Psychiatry : The Journal of Mental Science (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 457–67 <https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.135.5.457&gt;. p. 453.

[16] C. H. Patel, ‘Yoga and Bio-Feedback in the Management of Hypertension’, The Lancet, 302.7837 (1973), 1053–55 <https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(73)92660-3&gt;.

Meditation, mindfulness, quantum physics and duality

Mindfulness meditation finds itself under sustained scientific criticism, could quantum physics explain why?

Meditation and quantum physics
How far can a reductive mechanistic scientific ontology measure organic processes?

Experimental psychology has been the main object of The Science of Meditation project. The scientific papers featured in this blog are recent, generally published after 2010. But yesterday evening I came across a study from 1975 that addresses many of the issues which are currently limiting the research and practice of contemporary meditation. Fritjof Capra’s paper, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism describes the world views of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, comparing them with Western equivalents.1 In doing so, Capra highlights more than a dozen problems manifest in the contemporary (positivist) scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation. One of which I’m going to discuss here briefly; world views as either organic or mechanistic.

person walks towards temple

Having experienced the benefits of meditation first hand, I find the failure of psychology to demonstrate the potential of meditation both wasteful and confusing. As many as ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments have been conducted over the last forty years. Yet cognitive psychology describes research in this area as preliminary! Over time two questions have shaped my academic and scientific work; i) how does a spiritual practice become a secular (scientific) practice and ii) what is lost and gained in this transition? Put concisely, how well has the West understood traditional meditation systems?

Strategic reviews of research published since 2016 generally identify two limitations in the science of meditation. An absence of theoretical frameworks and widespread methodological flaws. The lack of a cohesive ontology (framework) is the greater of the two problems. Without a guiding rationale, the scientific method can become directionless, entangling the means with the ends. Capra’s paper sets out his interpretation of the characteristics of ‘Eastern’ spiritual understandings, thus offering signposts to how the West could shape meditation research.

high angle photo of robot

So what are these organic and mechanistic world views that could alter the trajectory of research? Capra’s paper is 45 years old; much has changed in physics, psychology and our understandings of meditation.3 But as a theoretical study, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism deals with overarching concerns that are timeless. Capra argues that the view of ‘reality’ developed in the West rests on certain principles, such as those set out by the anatomist Democritus. It was the progression of this view that led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the ‘Western’ way of understanding almost everything.

Conversely Eastern understandings see nature as much more interconnected, that the categories and laws of nature are constructs, built by mental processes rather than absolute ‘truths’. Capra offers a deal of evidence from quantum physics to demonstrate how this proposition might work with the inanimate. But for the psychological sciences, the value of this insight is self-evident, humans rarely respond to complex phenomena in a universally predictable manner. And where experiments reveal ‘universality’ in complex human behaviours, there are generally several factors influencing the data, including society and the experimental method.

So what does this piece of ‘dated’ quantum physics mean for our contemporary understanding of meditation? The essence of this work highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) between the societies where meditation was created and is now investigated. That the West follows a culturally relevant mechanistic presumption of causality, even when considering human nature.4  Not to suggest that Newtonian physics doesn’t ‘work’, rather that it is part of a much more sophisticated understanding of nature. Psychology’s failure to recognise that different ontologies exist in different cultures, even when appropriating their technologies has implications to the study of meditation and mindfulness.5



1 Capra, F. (1976). Modern physics and eastern mysticism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(1).

2 Capra also discusses Hinduism and Taoism in this paper. Although grouping ideas from different Buddhist schools or diverse religio-philosophical systems can lead to over-generalisations, each of the points made needs to considerer on its individual merit.

3 I’m unfamiliar with Capra’s later studies; his views may have changed radically since this paper was published. I’d be delighted to hear from you if you are familiar with his recent work, feel free to email me or post comments in the text box below.

4 Capra’s thinking embraces physics generally, the emphasis on human behaviour here is my focus rather than a reflection of the paper under discussion.

5 While the existing positivist ontologies present in cognitive psychology offer investigatory potential, there are two problems if traditional meditation is based on a Western world view.  Firstly without cognisance of the spiritual frameworks, the contemporary interpretation of the original practices may lack elements foundational to its understanding. Secondly, while positivist approaches will produce data, what is being measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.

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’.


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

Mindfulness: Towards A Critical Relational Perspective

A critical perspective of mindfulness. Understanding the contemporary mindfulness movement in a wider perspective.


Author: Steven Stanley

Year: 2013

Title: Mindfulness: Towards A Critical Relational Perspective

Summary: This research acknowledges the increasing role of mindfulness in the west; enabling people to engage with new approaches to cope with issues connected to subjective wellbeing such as stress, depression and anxiety. It also discusses the appropriation of ‘mindfulness’ by psychology and the potential for conflict between its role in traditional and modern westernised meditation movements. A social critique, exposing the failure (and thus the potential opportunity) of psychology to integrate mindfulness as a personal and social practice.

Perspective: Social psychology, discursive psychology

Links: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00454.x/abstract