Can mindfulness research be improved?

Growing challenges to the science of mindfulness is forcing a rethink in how we measure and understand the benefits of meditation.

Can mindfulness research be improved?
Improving our understanding of mindfulness

Authors: Grossenbacher, P. G., & Quaglia, J. T

Year: 2017

Title: Contemplative cognition: A more integrative framework for advancing mindfulness and meditation research

Summary: The growing tide of criticism directed against the science of mindfulness, from within the scientific community, is driving a sense that something has to change. Just what that something is, remains unclear.  In this paper from 2017, Grossenbacher and Quaglia proposed a new approach for understanding mindfulness and meditation as a useful first step in improving reliability in contemplative science generally.

A consensus is emerging that long-standing and evidenced problems in mindfulness research are linked to both theoretical and methodological issues, put simply what mindfulness is and how it can be understood. The authors argue that establishing an integrative theoretical framework will offer meditation scientists the tools to deliver more stable and comparable findings. Thus supporting the reliability of individual experiments and presenting greater opportunities for replication. It’s contended that by utilising the psychological constructs of attention, intention and awareness a contemplative cognitive framework (CCF) can be constructed, which would deliver an overarching view of the impact of meditation practice. Grossenbacher and Quaglia state that the CCF could

  • overcome discrepancies in mindfulness research (a very bold claim)
  • consider motivational and contextual aspects of meditation practice
  • create greater opportunities for epistemological plurality
  • deliver a common operational language, benefitting meditation and mindfulness research in general

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Although falling short of a systematic review, the authors offered some welcome clarity in understanding the current limitations in this field. In addition, their discussion of the pressing need to consider the effect of motivation and context in meditation practice is particularly timely. The paper provides an exposition of attention and intention in a clear and informed manner. And I’d recommend this study to anyone wanting to know more about metacognition and meditation practice.

However one of the problems with meditation research, in general, is the failure to study traditional forms of meditation with a clear understanding of their ontologies and epistemologies. Any contemporary methods which claim a theoretical relationship with traditional practices, must include a credible understanding of what the original practices are. Only then can the modern translated meditation methods be scientifically framed, by understanding which operational components have been added or taken away. Without a clear awareness of what the original practice was, trying to reverse engineer a theoretical framework would appear to be a challenging process. Until we have a reliable phenomenological understanding of the traits practitioners cultivate in traditional mindfulness, a contemporary theoretical framework necessitates a degree of guesswork, even with the support of neural correlates.

The CCF may prove to offer a useful toolkit for new forms of meditation, unrelated to and independent from traditional methods. In could allow for hypotheses to be created and tested. But without greater certainty of the operational components of traditional practices, discussions regarding the metacognition of Buddhist or Buddhist inspired meditation is perhaps premature.

References
Grossenbacher, P. G., & Quaglia, J. T. (2017). Contemplative cognition: A more integrative framework for advancing mindfulness and meditation research. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1580-1593.

Meditation and neurodegeneration; what do we know?

Can meditation stop or reverse neurodegeneration? The answer is yes but the method can’t resolve any problems by itself.

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Authors: Newberg, A. B., Serruya, M., Wintering, N., Moss, A. S., Reibel, D., & Monti, D. A.

Year: 2014

Title: Meditation and neurodegenerative diseases.

Summary: Meditation research is now so fragmented that only by taking an overview can a fuller understanding of what we know be arrived at. In the research literature, these overviews are called strategic reviews or meta-studies. Newberg and colleagues offer their perspective on what we know about how our brain functions decline and what we can do to stop it. The authors set out the broad definitions for Alzheimer’s Disease, Frontotemporal lobar dementia (FTLD) including Pick’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, and discuss the potential of meditation to help people with declining brain function.

There is no shortage of evidence for a relationship between meditation and both functional and structural change in the brain, but the devil really is in the detail. In common with a wide range of other behaviours, meditation will have an effect on the brain, but understanding which meditation methods create which effects is not a simple matter. This meta-study describes the influence of meditation into two areas, attention and memory, but it also includes an element of cognition more generally. The paper illustrates evidence for a relationship between meditation and improvements in performance in all three areas (attention, memory and other cognitive functions). Some of these improvements have been linked to recorded physical changes to the brain. Individual studies are discussed demonstrating quite specific effects of meditation practices. For example that vipassana meditation appears to improve working memory and focused attention methods may help sustained visual attention.

Unfortunately, there is almost no replication of the cited effects (replication being identical studies reporting the same results). This report also reduces all meditation to a singular family of mind training, evidence suggests that this is an unscientific approach. Grouping together methods from kundalini, tantra, sutra with MBIs in a meta-review is fraught with difficulty, particularly as robust theoretical frameworks for these practices don’t exist in neuroscience or cognitive psychology. However, in defence of the authors, meditation has been researched in the west for at least 45 years and attempts to understand and review progress should be welcomed.

Link: https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com

Brain health in middle age; the science of meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness may help to keep your brain young

man sitting on chair beside table

 

Authors: Fotuhi, M., Lubinski, B., Trullinger, M., Hausterman, N., Riloff, T., Hadadi, M., & Raji, C. A.

Year: 2016

Title: A personalized 12‐week ” Brain Fitness Program” for improving cognitive function and increasing the volume of hippocampus in elderly with mild cognitive impairment.

Summary: The idea that brain function inevitably declines as people grow older is firmly established in both clinical and cognitive branches of psychology. This particular study is one of only a handful that I have seen to suggest, that even in retirement, people can maintain and even increase both structure and function in the brain. Participants of retirement age with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) were asked to engage in a number of activities linked to brain health. They included: cognitive stimulation, Omega 3 supplements, some physical exercise, a change in diet and mindfulness meditation. Participant undertook a range of cognitive tests before the interventions and at the end of the experiment.

Results showed that 84% of participants saw an improvement in their cognitive performance. Further neuroimaging examinations revealed that a majority of a sample of the participants also demonstrated no decline or an actual increase in the volume of the hippocampus. Although this was a preliminary study with a number of methodological problems, it is suggestive that people may have a lot more control over brain structure and function than is generally assumed. This kind of ‘shotgun’ approach can support general theories but adds little to our understanding of the extent to which particular interventions (or combination of interventions) may offer benefit. It also makes the establishment of robust scientific theory a challenge, as no single theory can incorporate such a wide range of activities. For example with a new diet, can cognitive changes be attributed to the food that was no longer being eaten or the new food? Or a combination of the two? However simply to demonstrate that older adults can experience increased structure in certain brain regions is an important contribution to our understanding of the human brain.

Link: https://neurogrow.com

Better mental health through meditation?

adult air beautiful beauty
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

Authors: Kieran C.R. Fox, R. Nathan Spreng, Melissa Ellamil, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Kalina Christoff

Year: 2015

Title: The wandering brain: Meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies
of mind-wandering and related spontaneous thought processes

Summary: Thinking about the most common effects on the brain from meditation will lead you into an area that psychologists call spontaneous thoughts. These are defined as thoughts and ideas that seem to come out of nowhere and don’t necessarily have any obvious relationship to a specific task you may be undertaking. Meditation scientists have long considered that the most popular forms of secular meditation lower activity in regions of the brain known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is strongly connected with, self-reflection, thoughts about relationships with others, memories of the past and our ability to project into the future. It is also the home to our mind wandering or drifting.

Mind wandering can increase under certain conditions and has been linked to a number of long term mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Many forms of meditation reduce activity in the parts of the DMN known to support spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering. This can be a great help to people that have problems concentrating or are troubled by negative or challenging thoughts. The research by Fox and colleagues undertook a review of 24 functional neuroimaging studies looking into mind wandering/spontaneous thought. Results confirmed that well-established centres in the DMN (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, medial temporal lobe, and bilateral inferior parietal lobule) were associated with mind wandering. However, it was evident that a number of other brain regions were also engaged. The significance of the study was that spontaneous thought cannot be regarded as universally linked to a limited number of centres in the DMN. A range of regions in different networks appears to be instrumental to spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

The implication for meditation practitioners and researchers is that the apparent act of suppression or restriction of activity in the DMN cannot be seen in a narrow context and may have a broader implication for a number of interrelated processes.

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com

Spiritual based meditation may help preserve cognitive function

Whilst intensive meditation practice may improve cognitive function, sustained daily practice may help maintain it.

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Authors: Anthony P. Zanesco, Brandon G. King, Katherine A. MacLean, Clifford D. Saron

Year: 2018

Title: Cognitive Ageing and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training

Summary: Can meditation lead to improvements in cognitive abilities such as attention? Meditation research generally suffers from a shortage of longitudinal studies, therefore this seven-year project should be applauded. Building on their earlier work which examined the effects of a three-month meditation retreat on cognition. This investigation assessed the benefits of sustained practice in the following years. The findings appeared to demonstrate that age-related decline in reaction time was negatively correlated with the continuation of meditation practice (regular practice leading to slower decline), following the intensive three-month retreat. The research broadly concludes that the cognitive benefits achieved through periods of intensive activity may receive protection against age-related decline from regular meditation practice.

In the original retreat at least two forms of meditation were undertaken, a basic mind training and a compassion/empathy based practice, both embedded in a spiritual tradition. Inevitably it is problematic to evaluate the benefits of each of the practices or their interaction effect. As an experienced meditator I should underline that by their very nature, participants willing and able to undertake retreats of three months and sustain meditation practice over several years are probably unrepresentative of meditators generally, let alone the wider population. Limitations of ecological validity are discussed in the study. There was also insufficient information provided regarding the meditation history of participants, their levels of accomplishment, the degree of their theoretical training and information regarding secondary or special practices undertaken since the retreat.

Link: https://link.springer.com