Meditation and Mindfulness Glossary

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Mindfulness terminology – some definitions and clarifications

The Glossary – Mindfulness and meditation terminology

Welcome to our informal glossary defining some of the terms used in the research featured on this website.

Contemplative science is a broad interdisciplinary area encompassing contemporary and traditional forms of meditation, including mindfulness. Some of the terms used in the scientific study of meditation can be confusing (even for meditation scientists). This short glossary offers definitions for some of this blog’s most commonly used terms. There is rarely universal agreement among scientists regarding complex human behaviour; whilst we attempt to provide a balanced view, alternative definitions may be available. New science is published all the time, and research can become dated overnight.

If you can suggest any changes or improvements, we’d welcome your thoughts.

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Altruism – Often described as a ‘detached’ interest in others’ well-being, altruism is frequently confused or combined with compassion in meditation research. At the time of writing (Nov 2020), reliable construct validity for self-reported trait altruism proved elusive.  

Amygdala: The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, and it is often referred to as the “stress centre” of the brain. Studies have shown that meditation can have a number of positive effects on the amygdala, including reducing its activity.

Biopsychosocial – Psychology uses various models to try and understand the mind. The biopsychosocial model is an interdisciplinary approach that combines biology, psychology, and environmental factors.

Blind or blinded experiments – A psychological experiment is said to be blinded when participants are unaware of information likely to influence their expectations of the intervention’s effect. A double-blinded experiment occurs when scientists and participants are both unaware of who is in the control and experimental groups.

Buddhism – Buddhism is a term used to describe the many different religious and philosophical schools that broadly follow the historical Buddha’s teachings.

Buddhist – A Buddhist is a practitioner of Buddhism or something relating to or derived from Buddhism ‘a Buddhist meditation’.

Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT) – Practices designed to systematically generate compassion.

Cognitive Decline – The decrease in cognitive performance over time. It can be normal or abnormal.

Cognitive Processes – The mental processes that allow us to engage with the world through sensory input.

Compassion – A term for a wide range of similar or related emotional traits and states. Competing definitions exist linked to various theoretical approaches and social norms. The classical Buddhist definition is ‘the wish that all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering’. At the time of writing, establishing a reliable construct validity was ongoing. Not to be confused with self-compassion.

Compassion Meditation (CM) – Compassion or compassionate meditation is a generic title for any spiritual or secular practice that seeks to meditate levels of compassion in some way.

Default mode network (DMN) – Perhaps the most important area of meditation research, the DMN is a large-scale but anatomically diffuse brain network, most active during introspection, planning and processing of autobiographical memory.

Duality-nonduality – Both duality and nonduality are different forms of consciousness humans experience. Traditional meditation systems are generally based on training to strengthen nondual awareness.

Electroencephalography – Is a technology developed by Hans Berger in the 1920s to monitor brain activity. Typically abbreviated to EEG, electroencephalography uses electrodes connected to the scalp to record changes in brain wave activity. EEG first demonstrated the potential of meditation to mediate alpha waves during the 1930s.  

Epistemology – Refers to the way we create knowledge. For example, our understanding of meditation and mindfulness exists in a specific frame; epistemology defines what these frames are (see ontology).

Hippocampus – Is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Studies have shown that meditation can have a number of positive effects on the hippocampus, including increasing its size.

Intrinsic-extrinsic networks (iN-eN or I-ENs) – Two separate but negatively correlated networks. The intrinsic is linked to internally focused activities (autobiographical memory, moral compass, planning). The extrinsic network supports external activities (tasks).

Insula: The insula is the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness and self-regulation. Studies have shown that meditation can have a number of positive effects on the insula, including increasing its activity.

Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) – Loving-kindness meditation is a traditional Buddhist meditation practice; modern secular versions exist. Although LKM is often linked with compassion meditation, conventional definitions of compassion and LKM are not identical.

Meditation Adverse Events (MAEs) – Adverse events linked to meditation practice; can be mild or severe depending on several causes and conditions. Scientific studies indicate that perhaps as many as 1 in 10 people suffer some form of MAE correlated with the practice of meditation or mindfulness. Although an under-researched area, the potential for meditation to provoke adverse side effects is well documented in traditional literature.

Medicalised Meditation – A movement founded in the 1970s that attempted to create a convergence between belief, science and medicine. Three main forms of medicalisation are TM, the relaxation response and mindfulness. Note that the term medicalised is different, often linked to discourses of power and control.

Meta-awareness (meta consciousness, metacognitive awareness) – The activity mediation across the intrinsic-extrinsic brain networks.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – It is presumed that human cognitive function declines from around the age of thirty. If this decline reaches a particular threshold, it may be diagnosed as MCI. MCI can be seen as a movement towards dementia, but this is a possibility rather than a definite outcome. Evidence does show that brain function and structure can be augmented in older adults.

Mindful Attention Training (MAT) – A mindfulness practice used to increase attention.

Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) – The Westminster Mindfulness all-party mindfulness group published a highly favourable review of mindfulness research and practice in 2015, Mindful Nation.

Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) – A blanket term for a family of mindfulness interventions, typically therapeutic forms rooted in the original MBSR framework. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – One of the first contemporary mindfulness practices developed in the late 1970s to reduce stress.

Mindfulness Crisis – Over the last six years, several scientific reviews have identified structural and systematic limitations in the scientific investigation of meditation and mindfulness. The evidencing of theoretical and methodological limitations in mindfulness research has led to the ‘mindfulness crisis’. A term that reflects growing uncertainty in the study of meditation methods and their clinical applications. Also, the contemplative sciences are subject to the widespread replication crisis affecting social sciences more generally.

Negative Correlation – A scientific term that describes two entangled systems with maximum combined output. When activity in one system is high, it’s reduced in the other and vice versa (see intrinsic-extrinsic).

Neurodegeneration – the progressive attenuation of brain structure. Typical conditions include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Neurogenesis – Is the term that refers to the renewal or regrowth of brain tissue or cells. There is ample evidence that meditation can promote grey and white brain structures throughout the life cycle.

Nondual Awareness (NDA) – A mental state that is the goal of many forms of traditional meditation.

Ontology – A foundational concept of Western science, based on principles articulated by Aristotle.

Prefrontal cortex – Part of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, and controlling emotions. Studies have shown that meditation can have a number of positive effects on the prefrontal cortex, including increasing the thickness of this area of the brain.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) – An anxiety disorder caused by exposure to traumatic events. A condition which is treated.

Prosocial behaviour – A term used to describe actions intended to benefit others, such as sharing resources, volunteering, and contributing to good causes. However, there is a general understanding of what is termed prosocial. Many grey areas make the term’s scientific use problematic, for example, the use of philanthropy to maximise tax liabilities or self-promotion.

The Religion of Science (RoS) – A philosophical school that claimed a congruence between scientific and religious knowledge systems. Linked with Paul Carus’s work at the start of the 20th century, Zen scholar D.T Suzuki was also highly influenced by the concept.

Replication Crisis – The social sciences and medicine have been dogged by problems replicating (repeating) the results of scientific studies over the last twenty years. Without replication, scientific claims remain limited and preliminary at best. Unfortunately, the science of meditation has also suffered from many one-off unreplicated papers.

Resilience – The umbrella term resilience often describes the extent to which we are protected from declining mental health. However, it is relatively imprecise because each of us has different degrees of vulnerability to various mental health conditions. The notion that meditation is a panacea persists, even though most meditation and mindfulness research focuses on a limited number of cognitive traits and states. So it’s perhaps important to talk about resilience concerning specific mental health challenges.

School-based mindfulness training (SBMT) – An intervention developed for use in a school context. Despite positive initial studies, more systematic investigations have struggled to run into difficulties.

Self-compassion – Although frequently linked to compassion in meditation research, self-compassion represents different psychological constructs and behaviours. Despite a significant amount of research in this field, several uncertainties exist, including the relationship between the concepts of self-compassion and neuroticism.3

Side Effects – In common with most other health treatments, meditation’s therapeutic uses may provoke unwanted side effects, some serious.

Suicide – According to the World Health Organisation, suicide is responsible for 800,000 deaths yearly. The US Army is one of the few organisations looking at meditation’s potential to lower suicide rates.

Task Positive Network (TPN) – The TPN is part of the extrinsic network and includes brain regions linked to attention and task performance (e.g. dorsal attention, dorsolateral, ventrolateral and motor areas).

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