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 that encompasses 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 scientist). This short glossary offers definitions for some of the most commonly used terms found across this blog. There is rarely universal agreement among scientists regarding complex human behaviour; whilst we attempt to offer 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.
Altruism – Often described as a ‘detached’ interest in the well-being of others, 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 was proving to be elusive.1
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 effect of the intervention. A double-blinded experiment takes place when scientists and participants are both unaware of information able to create an experimental bias.
Buddhism – Buddhism is a term used to describe the many different religious and philosophical schools that broadly follow the teachings of the historical Buddha.
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 Processes – The mental processes that allow that allows 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 different 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.2
Compassion Meditation (CM) – Compassion or compassionate meditations is a generic title for any spiritual or secular practice the 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 autobiographical memory.
Duality-nonduality – Both duality and nonduality are different forms of consciousness that humans experience. Put simply, traditional meditation systems are generally based on training to strengthen non-dual awareness.
Electroencephalography – Is a technology developed by Hans Berger in the 1920s to monitor brain activity. Typically abbreviated to EEG, electroencephalography typically uses electrodes connected to the scalp to record changes to 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. Our understanding of meditation and mindfulness exists in a specific frame; epistemology defines what these frames are (see ontology).
Intrinsic-extrinsic networks (iN-eN) – 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).
Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) – Loving-kindness meditation is a traditional Buddhist meditation practice, modern secular versions do exist. Although LKM is often linked with compassion meditation, traditional definitions describe loving-kindness as ‘the wish that beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
Meditation Adverse Events (MAEs) – Adverse events linked to meditation practice; these 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.
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 possible rather than 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-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 with the intention to reduce stress.
Negative Correlation – A scientific term that describes two entangled systems, that have 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 of conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Neurogeneration – Is the term that describes refers to the renewal or regrowth of brain tissue or cells. There is now ample evidence that meditation is able to promote the growth of both grey and white brain structures throught 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.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) – An anxiety disorder that is caused by exposure to traumatic events. A condition which is treated.
Prosocial behaviour – A term used to described actions intended to bring benefit to others, such as sharing resources, volunteering, contributing to good causes. However, there is a general understanding of what is termed prosocial. Many grey areas make the scientific use of the term problematic; for example, the use of philanthropy to maximise tax liabilities or self-promotion.
Self-compassion – Although frequently linked to compassion in meditation research, self-compassion represents different sets of psychological constructs and behaviours. Despite a signifcant amount of research in this field, a number of uncertainties exist including the relationship between the concepts of self-compassion and neuroticism.3
Side Effects – In common with most other health treatments, the therapeutic uses of meditation may provoke unwanted side effects, some serious.
1 McAuliffe, W. H. (2019). Can studies of trait altruism be trusted? (Doctoral dissertation, University of Miami).
2 Elices, M., Carmona, C., Pascual, J. C., Feliu-Soler, A., Martin-Blanco, A., & Soler, J. (2017). Compassion and self-compassion: Construct and measurement. Mindfulness & Compassion, 2(1), 34-40.
3 Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S. (2017). Old wine in new bottles? The case of self‐compassion and neuroticism. European Journal of Personality, 31(2), 160-169.