There is a significant and growing body of research into all aspects of meditation. A key focus of this website is the findings from academic and scientific studies, however we also include (and link to) a range of other relevant material from multiple sources. We are compiling a database of all identified meditation research papers, producing an individual blog entry on this website for each study in the database. The blog allows material to be grouped together through keywords, and permits a degree of interactivity with other researchers and interested parties.
For anyone not familiar with research into complex human behaviours like meditation, direct causality between the behaviour and effects, such as a reduced perception of pain or lower levels of stress are very hard to demonstrate. Even in research supported by neuroscientific observation (such as fMRI), certainty regarding a direct relationship between meditation and neurological activity is difficult to ascertain. It is not uncommon for different studies in similar areas to deliver conflicting results. There is a degree of discussion in psychology itself about the appropriateness of diverse research methodologies and subsequent methods. The issue then is perhaps not to be over reliant on individual research findings but to look for critical masses of data that suggests robust results. The most reliable findings are also likely to be supported by research from different perspectives.
Although meditation can be sub divided and categorised in different ways it is a unique experience, no two meditations will be the same in every particular. In addition external observation can only make some general assumptions about internal meditative processes. For this reason the experience of the meditator is a particularly important part of understanding meditation. This is not to suggest that a phenomenological approach should be given pre-eminence in the study of meditation, but acknowledges that meditators have a role to play in the research into and understanding of meditation.
The particular tension between the internal experience of meditation and its observable manifestation is nothing new. Certain texts used by traditional schools of meditation such as those existing in Tibetan Buddhism have for centuries been tackling this issue. There are a number of works that offer explanations about the ‘ideal’ and ‘actual’ impact of meditation on individuals. This also opens further the potential for traditional knowledge to help illuminate the understanding of meditation and the human mind in a secular context.
Research into meditation is not always helped by over generalisations and a lack of a universally understood and shared vocabulary. For example the term meditation describes a range of human behaviours from many cultures, existent for thousands of years. They can include practices involving; mindfulness, compassion, walking, visualisations, breathing and loving kindness. Each of these practices can exist in many different forms, in diverse sociocultural contexts. Practices can be designed for meditators with different levels of experience and there is generally a cumulative effect as well; the experience is likely to be different for people in week one, week 10 and year 20. In this respect it might be useful to make casual use of the analogy with exercise. The Olympic sprinter, elderly dog walker, long distance swimmer or patient recovering from a stroke may all be said to exercise but there are vast differences in what they do and the effects they can expect.
In a project such as The Science of Meditation it has been necessary to make some generalisations and employ terms widely used in the meditation research community. However we acknowledge the diversity in meditation and the uniqueness of every practitioner’s experience. In due course it may be beneficial to develop a meditation glossary to bring greater coherence to our own work.