Three limitations in our understanding of meditation and how to fix them

Scientists are challenging claims being made for the benefits of mindfulness. A project to fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge is an urgent priority.

Limitations in the understanding of meditation and mindfulness
Lack of understanding is limiting the study of meditation

Scientists studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation are still coming to terms with  a systematic review entitled ‘Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.1 The criticisms made in that study pose questions for the use of meditation in contemporary secular settings. This crisis of confidence is not linked to a lack of clinical potential; there are preliminary indications of meditation’s curative effects. The problems rest in the widespread absence of replicated evidence for many of the claims made for meditation technologies. The overview now emerging from the scientific study of meditation is the lack of a ‘big picture’. Psychological science has studied the impact of meditation extensively over the last seventy years, but further progress appears limited by three intractable problems.

The long term sustainability of clinical meditation is threatened by an inability to reflect its successes and failures in equal measure. While it is not uncommon to find pilot studies with small numbers of participants hyped in the media, established theoretical and methodological problems receive modest scholarly or scientific interest. This is not a minor nor recent problem; issues of scientific reliability have stalked meditation research since the middle decades of the twentieth century.

man sitting on rock in front of water fountain

Reviews of published meditation research frequently cite flaws in the methodologies used. For example, many studies find an effect; that when people meditate some measurable change takes place. However, this effect is often established in isolation without any control group. Or on many occasions, the control is a ‘waiting list’ of participants who receive no appropriate intervention or placebo, meaning all the experiment can show is that in one instance the meditation appeared to have a more substantial effect than nothing. As any neuroscientist or neuropsychologist can tell you, a repeated novel activity of almost any kind can lead to an effect, and if continued for long enough new brain function and structure will be observed.

But the failure to establish strong scientific evidence cannot be only put down to an absence of scientific introspection and methodological flaws. The lack of a coherent theoretical framework presents the biggest obstacle to meditation research. Put simply, despite thousands of published papers over recent decades; we still can’t quite settle on definitions of what secular meditations are and how they should work. Many meditation studies reference religious traditions alongside scientific papers with little explanation of how positivism and spirituality can share a common world view. Peer-reviewed studies which contain limitations continue to be cited in recent work, their influence extending well beyond experimental environments.

Scientists working in this field are likely to be familiar with these three areas of concern (lack of reflexivity, methodological and theoretical weaknesses). But elevating the standard of published research remains a challenge. The Van Dam et al. study makes several recommendations, which if adopted, could improve matters, but the critical challenges haven’t been addressed; we lack authoritative accounts of what meditation and mindfulness are. This overarching question is directly linked to the gaps in our knowledge of how meditation relocated to science, what processes were lost and gained. A more rigorous epistemological and ontological understanding of the science of meditation may be our best hope to deliver the stable conceptual foundations urgently needed in the contemplative sciences.

Notes

1 Van Dam, N. T., Van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on psychological science, 13(1), 36-61.

If mindfulness works, we have to be able to produce the evidence

The longer the science of mindfulness resists reforms, the greater the risks to the technology.

Buddhism and mindfulness
Making sense of mindfulness research

Leading UK economist Richard Layard has drawn further attention to the growing controversy surrounding mindfulness meditation. In his recent book Can we be happier?, Layard sends a number of uncertain messages about the role and benefits of mindfulness. The central premise contained in the Introduction is that by increasing levels of altruism, a new age of increased happiness can be established. Throughout the book, mindfulness and meditation are used as examples of technologies able to support the ‘happiness revolution’. But confusingly, Layard highlights concerns that the altruism present in traditional meditation methods, has been erased from secular forms of mindfulness. According to Layard’s hypothesis, if mindfulness decreases altruism it might reduce happiness. The same problem may be present with any self-focused form of mind training, self-compassion or CBT for example.

man wearing black crew neck top

Can we be happier? also misses the opportunity to discuss the lack of replicated data in mindfulness research. Several scientific reviews have argued that revisions to the methodologies used to study meditation are required.1 Given the status of Layard as a leading authority in the science of happiness, his failure to mention this growing problem is surprising. Leaving the book open to accusations of a lack of scientific objectivity.2 A tendency to ignore critical reviews from academics and scientists is causing increasing damage to the reputation of the contemplative sciences. If action isn’t taken by the scientific and clinical communities, there is a danger that the progress of mindfulness will be stalled further. There are three pressing issues that need to be addressed by professionals working in this field.

  • The body of research needs to be reviewed and a distinction made between reliable (fully replicated studies) and unreplicated (unreplicable) work.
  • Any systemic problems must be acknowledged and a plan of action to eliminate them agreed.
  • Robust theoretical frameworks need to be established.

“Those of us with a long experience of meditation, know how valuable a technology it is. But if we wish that meditation and mindfulness are treated as scientifically reliable, we must meet the required standards of evidence. Including a need for extensive replication.”

Stephen Gene Morris

Notes:

1 Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61.

2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/23/can-we-be-happier-richard-layard-review

Misunderstandings of mind

An ever changing relationship between psychology and Buddhism reveals the transient nature of mindfulness meditation in the West.

the relationship between Buddhism and psychology

In the Western history of Buddhist theory and practice, traditional forms of Buddhism have been relatively stable during the twentieth century. New Buddhist traditions and Buddhist inspired movements have emerged in that time, but many of the established schools have demonstrated a surprising continuity. However, since 1900 psychology has undergone radical transformations, leading to changes in both mainstream and peripheral approaches. Therefore the current engagement between Buddhism and psychology, in the form of the science of mindfulness, should be seen as transient and merely the latest stage in the relationship.

Research into the history of the West’s engagement with meditation led me in pursuit of a book written by Caroline Rhys Davids1 in 1914. I haven’t yet tracked down a copy of this work. But several published reviews can be found through resources such as Google Scholar. Without reading Davids’s treatise, I wouldn’t wish to suggest it was representative of any or all of Buddhist psychology; that’s not my point. Instead, the reviews of her work appear, in some quarters, to accept that Eastern understandings of mind might be able to contribute to Western scientific knowledge. In one such appraisal, Walter Clark from the University of Chicago wrote in 1916:

The study of Buddhist psychology is of much interest to us because of the fact that it gives us a carefully worked out analysis of mental phenomena from the point of view of an entirely different “tradition of thought.” Its parallelism to and difference from our own psychological thinking opens up many problems which are of the utmost importance in the study of thought in general.2

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photographt

Clarke’s review indicates apparent scholarly respect for Eastern sciences of mind. Suggestive of the potential for collaborative rather than appropriative perspectives of Buddhist understandings. There have been several Western scholars that demonstrate an appreciation of traditional (Eastern) forms of psychology, but these are mainly found in the humanities rather than the sciences. A scientist investigating traditional meditation methods rarely links their work to underlying Buddhist concepts, citing relevant texts.

By drawing attention to the evolving nature of psychology, it is a reminder that Western science is in a state of flux in some regards. That what counts as ‘scientifically validated’ psychology today, may well be washed away by a ‘post-cognitive’ movement over the next decades. Conversely, much traditional Buddhist thought and practice has a core of knowledge that extends back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. In this regard, Buddhist writings on mind, consciousness, and meditation are an underutilised resource in the study and use of meditation technologies.

 

Notes

1 Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature. By Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1914. 212 pages. 2s. 6d.

2 The emphasis is mine. Clark, Walter E. “Buddhistic Psychology.” (1916): 139-141.

Memory improvements possible from meditation in middle and old age

There are strong indications that meditation and mindfulness practice may have a positive impact on dementia and cognitive decline.

man hands waiting senior
Meditation appears able to help improve memory even in people suffering from cognitive decline?

Authors: Russell-Williams, J., Jaroudi, W., Perich, T., Hoscheidt, S., El Haj, M., & Moustafa, A. A.

Year: 2018

Title: Mindfulness and meditation: treating cognitive impairment and reducing stress in dementia

Summary: Mental health concerns linked to an ageing population include, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), dementia, mild cognitive impairment and subjective cognitive decline. We should say at the outset that when people are diagnosed with early-stage dementia, increased stress levels leading to poorer health more generally may follow close behind. This notion was reflected in the aims of this review.

There is evidence that meditation technologies can boost brain function and structure, but there is a lack of research investigating the benefits to populations already suffering from declining cognitive performance. This narrative review examined ten studies that explored the benefits of meditation on dementia-related memory conditions. The study looked across a range of scientific papers to identify trends and patterns. This should not be confused with experimental replication (the repetition of experiments to confirm scientific reliability).

The reviewed studies were seeking to understand if meditation could influence the cognitive performance, quality of life and perceived stress of people already experiencing different degrees of memory-related cognitive decline. The good news is that all of the studies demonstrated significant or ‘moving towards significant’ results. Collectively, these findings indicated that meditation could lead to

  • a reduction in cognitive decline
  • an increase in functional connectivity in the brain
  • a reduction in perceived stress
  • an increase in quality of life

The bottom line is that meditation appears able to improve brain function in people already suffering cognitive decline. Observed changes are likely to be linked to structural alterations in the brain. These positive developments can, in turn, lead to reduced levels of stress and improved quality of life.

“These preliminary findings offer causes for optimism in the treatment of cognitive decline. However caution must be expressed until results have been reliably replicated.”

Stephen Gene Morris

Link: www.degruyter.com

Nonduality and its central role to understanding meditation

The problem in talking about the concept of nonduality is that it is everywhere, all the time, but it is rarely recognised or understood.

Nondual understanding, the key to understanding meditation
Non-duality, the foundational principle of Buddhist meditation methods

Where to begin? Where to begin when there is no beginning? To merely approach the concept of nonduality, several volumes of definitions, meanings and precedents could be used to establish the common ground required for a meaningful introduction. Consider that in traditional training systems, an ‘introduction’ to nonduality can comprise a decade or more of study and meditation. Even then an intellectual understanding might not be achieved, and a genuine experiential appreciation is even less likely. But despite the challenges,  I’m going to attempt to outline a basic framework illustrating the inseparability of nonduality and Buddhist meditation.

library high angle photro

From the Western academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more.1 However, as this is a discussion of duality and nonduality in contemplative science, I can try a short-cut and align these thoughts to theoretical frameworks from traditional meditation systems. Crucially these established understandings have stable ontologies with reliable supporting and supportive epistemologies. Such theoretical frameworks can be found throughout traditional meditation schools, but are explicitly taught in nondual approaches such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra.2 I disagree with Capra’s generalisations about the shared world view of Eastern mystical traditions.3 But I take his point that there are fundamental conflicts between positivist and mystical understandings of mind and matter. This is not to give the first or last word on nonduality to any tradition, school or sect. Put simply, the tension between duality and nonduality is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. However, some mystical traditions have established literary and oral traditions explaining the nature of explicit nonduality and the methods that may be used to establish nondual awareness (NDA).

As most forms of meditation shape the cognitive processes underpinning conscious experience, they can be considered as tools able to influence our concepts of duality-nonduality. However, a point of clarification is required, everything we think, say or do also exerts a force upon our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to NDA. So when we talk about meditation in a traditional context, nonduality is generally (intrinsically and extrinsically) part of the process and method being used. It is also important to stress that Buddhist meditation is a broad church (several different churches), some meditation approaches may not articulate any position about dualistic concepts. For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has stated that the Buddhist scriptures reject the pursuit of dual or nondual states.2 The motivation of practitioners is also a critical factor in this discussion, people may meditate for many years without ever encountering the path to NDA. Conversely, several people have reported ‘accidental’ insight into nonduality without the use of any of the methods known to mediate conscious experience. Reassuringly, traditional texts from established meditation schools set out the foundational processes leading to NDA, which are congruent with (some) scientific understandings of cognitive training.

Contemplative science (the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness built up over the last half-century) is yet to create authoritative understanman standing on rooftop facing brown highrise buildingdings of the relationship between dual-nondual consciousness and meditation. One of the limiting factors in the scientific study of traditional forms of meditation is the very existence of dual and nondual awareness. The assumptions of positivism are that both the scientist and the scientific method are objective, assertions that have been demonstrated to be dualistic and sometimes unreliable. Therefore, NDA challenges the ontologies of many approaches trying to understand how traditional mediation mediates consciousness.

So given the preamble, how to explain dualism to a person neurologically committed to a dualistic view of the world? For this, we can return to preliminary discourses of how does the mind watch itself? The typical cognitive response to this question is that the executive function (EF) holds this task (of self-monitoring). But in reality, we know (at the level of psychology and personal experience), the EF is both participant and observer of the drama of our lives. This supports the view that humans flit between the dual and nondual states without necessarily being aware or having any choice in the matter. This takes us back to the drawing board because it is clear we often see the world in both dual and nondual frames according to a range of causes and conditions. NDA isn’t an abandonment of duality. Instead, it offers an experience-based understanding of the full scope of our conscious engagement with the world.

silhouette of person holding glass mason jar

Preliminary work by scientists like Josipovic and scholars such as Dunne has indicated that nondual meditation methods possess a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of Buddhist meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). This is the main point, we have a number of neural networks that drive our experience of life. Humans privilege parts of these networks over others, leading to a false certainty or reliance on those privileged domains. Over time these positions become dominant in terms of brain functions and structures. This is why so many of us are oblivious to the limitations of duality, we lack the cognitive software or neurological hardware to access it.

I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness has been recorded scientifically, let alone understood. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of contemplative science or cognitive psychology. A training in NDA is typically a work of years, and few people ever fully complete this journey. The full potential offered to humanity by nondual forms of meditation is dependent on grasping the nature of highly elusive mental states, considered to be the ‘result’ of meditation practices. The notion that the benefits of meditation can be found in the method alone reflects a dualistic understanding of mystical approaches.

The good news for both meditation scientists and secular practitioners is that a meaningful understanding of experience-based NDA is not essential for the research and practice of meditation methods. That regular meditation can alter brain function and structure is now widely accepted. In some cases, a pressing clinical need may lead to the practice of meditation as symptom focussed brain training, in the way that we could use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But this has little relationship with traditional and transcendent forms of meditation. A foundational limitation in the scientific study of meditation is also the absence of an appreciation of explicit and implicit nondual mental processes.

If you’re still wondering what duality and nonduality are, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky subject to work with, many experienced meditators are aware of the concepts but still fail to engage consciously with them. For a basic introduction into nondual concepts, you might find the NDA podcast helpful, download it here.

 

Notes
1. Loy, David. Nonduality: A study in comparative philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2012.

2. Josipovic, Zoran. “Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 9-18.

3. It is a complex task to define precisely which Eastern mystical traditions are nondual and which are not. The very proposition is a binary concept that makes no real sense from the nondual perspective. Perhaps at a later point I will attempt to set out distinctions between relative and absolute nonduality and how these can be further divided into explicit and implicit forms (realistically this is a book project rather than a blog post). Capra, Fritjof. “Modern physics and eastern mysticism.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 8, no. 1 (1976).

4. With all respect to the Bhikkhu, the abandonment of the pursuit of relative conscious states such as dual or nondual appears close to the integration which is one goal of the explicitly nondual traditions. Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “Dhamma and non-duality.” Access to Insight (2011).

 

Essay edited on 14th May 2020.

How far can we trust meditation research?

Strategic reviews are challenging the popular perception of the beneficial effects of mindfulness

How far can we trust meditation research?
Looking for answers from meditation?

How far can we trust meditation research?

No matter how I tried to write the headline it came out as provocative. My intention wasn’t to be controversial, rather I wanted to articulate concerns that have been rumbling around the science of meditation and mindfulness for decades. At the heart of this story are two important yet unresolved issues. Firstly how does psychology and neuroscience understand meditation and what do the results of meditation research really mean?

The limited prosocial effects of meditation is a recent systematic review of research undertaken by Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias and Inti Brazil. The study has been discussed in the meditation community at some length so I’m not going to review it here. But to summarize, the positive effects of meditation on prosocial behaviours (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice) in healthy adults were only observed in compassion and empathy scores. However, increases to compassion were just seen when the meditation teacher was one of the co-authors of the research paper or when the study used a ‘passive’ control group (this means the control group were on a waiting list). These findings are suggestive of flaws and possibly ‘bias’ in some of those studies that demonstrated significant results. In an interview with Ute Kreplin published in the international Buddhist journal Tricycle, a number of broader issues have been highlighted, it’s those that I’d like to push around a little now. Leaving to one side the methodological flaws which are the main focus of the Tricycle interview, let me draw attention to the potential causes of the ongoing limitations in our attempts to evidence the effects of meditation.

woman meditating

It should be stressed that the Kreplin, Farias and Brazil paper is one of a number of reviews that came to similar conclusions, that many (possibly most) of the published studies reporting significant effects in non-clinical populations had methodological and/or theoretical flaws. And as Kreplin hinted, published research tends only to be the tip of the iceberg, studies that fail to show measurable changes in meditators rarely see the light of day. So the examples analyzed in strategic reviews are not the full picture of meditation research, they offer a very selective (positive) account of the scientific landscape. And yet the common perception grows that meditation is a panacea able to deliver a range of desirable outcomes to almost anyone willing to practice a method.

“At this moment in time the science generally isn’t helping us to understand the benefits of meditation…”

Stephen Gene Morris

By way of transparency, I should make it clear that I’m an experienced meditator and confident of the great benefits of the practice. My interest in contemplative science comes from the perspectives of both a trained cognitive psychologist and a practising Buddhist. From my experience of teaching traditional meditation systems, it is unrealistic to claim that a few weeks of meditation practice automatically leads to ‘significant’ change. Some practitioners do progress rapidly, embracing the transformative potential of meditation, but others fall away after only a few weeks, sometimes disillusioned and unfulfilled. This is a difficult subject to address coming from a traditional meditation perspective because judging or criticizing the progress of another practitioner is something of a taboo. But to enhance the wider understanding of meditation this point needs to be stressed. There is no reason to assume that the meditation method alone leads to change, the method is an integral part of a firmly established theoretical framework. The effects of meditation tend to be meditated by several factors such as individual capacity, participant motivation and qualitative differences between the teacher or teaching systems.

The contemporary scientific investigation of meditation typically takes the reductionist approach, stripping out components that might confound the results of an experiment, such as variability in the method or differences in the environment. But isolating the cause (meditation method) and the effect (empirical change in the participant) is difficult, and in complex aspects of human behaviour such as empathy or compassion, it may be beyond the scope of many experiments. Consider that large numbers of the participants in meditation studies are likely to be undergraduates ‘pressed’ into research projects, obliged to participate in return for course credits. If meditation doesn’t always work for the people who choose to attend classes in the wider community why should things be any different in an experimental setting?

ancient architecture art asia

The ‘expectation’ that a meditation method in itself leads to change is not supported by human history. This idea may eventually be confirmed by science but the data gathered so far is inconclusive. We know that a number of meditation scientists are committed practitioners, so perhaps they have first-hand experience of the benefits of meditation or mindfulness. Is this as Kreplin suggests, part of the problem? Could the experiential knowledge of the results of meditating introduce subconscious bias into research methodology? I’m a meditator I know about the benefits of regular practice but I can see dangers to the credibility of meditation systems if claims based on poor science are over-hyped. The lack of long term studies for secular forms of meditation should also be a serious concern.

The failure to establish robust findings in meditation research begs a further question, without reliable replicated science how does the delivery of meditation technologies continue to grow in society? If scientists are raising questions about the claims made in individual studies why isn’t this filtering down more into health care, public policy and the media? If meditation and mindfulness interventions cannot be shown to work, or deliver predictable results, confidence in meditation generally may decline. It might also lead to an erosion in the status of experimental psychology as a provider of independent and reliable data.

These few paragraphs are simply an introduction to the subject, the start of a very long road. It can be argued that the contemporary western scientific investigation of meditation began in the 1970s, since when perhaps as many as 10,000 studies have been published. But based on the findings from recent strategic reviews our scientific understanding of meditation is at a surprisingly preliminary stage.

Notes

The Kreplin, Farias and Brazil study can be found here.