Meditation really seems to work as a peacekeeper—even between itself and the seemingly opposite discipline that is scientific research.
Or at least, that’s the picture that came out of an April 25 talk given by CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg on the benefits of mindfulness. I’ve written on the burgeoning relationship between contemplative practice and neuroscience before. But as part of this year’s Philadelphia Science Festival, this talk gave a fresh look at the topic by unpacking what exactly scientific studies could have to say about meditation and related practices.
At first glance, the two fields seem to operate on different planes. Where one strives for objectivity, the other goes for heightened consciousness of subjective experiences. But Clegg and her colleague Ilene Wasserman broke right through that surface-level opposition with a plenty of findings from neuroscience that probe how meditation might change the brain, what level of impact it can have and on whom.
In one study Clegg mentioned, eight weeks of regular meditative practice was associated with greater activation in left-sided anterior brain regions that have been linked to positive emotions. This activation pattern also predicted a better response to flu vaccine in subjects who meditated. Looking at a group of especially stressed individuals, another study found an association between an eight-week mindfulness program and reduced gray matter density in the amygdala. This finding pointed to one way meditation might literally shape the brain.
Other studies took on clinical issues, like examining meditative practice as a potential treatment for ADHD. Another looked at the ways positive emotions, mediated by mindfulness, can promote healthy outcomes like a bolstered sense of purpose.
Whatever the topic, Clegg emphasized that these studies should be viewed as “promising, but preliminary.” Many had fairly small sample sizes, i.e. around two dozen subjects. And since meditation asks individuals to focus on their own bodies, many of its effects may be specialized. Within these limitations, what these studies really do is probe at a collaborative field that is relatively new — making it both speculative and exciting.
Clegg and Wasserman also kept the audience from losing sight of the heart of the field: meditative practice itself. Guided by Clegg, we tried breathing techniques, shifting our attention and the technique of loving kindness meditation. That gave us a flavor for the activities that may drive the positive outcomes we discussed. (Anyone interested in learning more about mindfulness practice can start here.)
Even practiced briefly, these techniques had a calming effect. And who knows—if you do them enough, they might, say, shrink your amygdala and your fear responses.
So the Dalai Lama walks into a room full of neuroscientists…
That sentence sounds like the revamped start of a priest-rabbi-imam joke. But it’s the reality of the Mind & Life Institute — a nonprofit aiming to combine the first person experiences of contemplative practices like meditation with scientific studies of the brain.
Mind & Life has involved the Dalai Lama since its 1987 founding, and over the years the group has brought in other spiritual leaders, committed meditators and well-respected scientists to fulfill its mission. It supports research on a range of topics, from the effects of mindfulness training on attention and working memory in children, to yogic breathing and cognition, to interdisciplinary definitions of human spirituality.
I’ll admit it: when I first read about an organization applying Western neuroscience to contemplative practice, I was a little skeptical (or paranoid, depending how you see it). It’s easy for Western cultures to appropriate traditionally Eastern practices in ways that ring superficial — case in point, the yuppie yoga boom. If this were an instance of neuroscientists trying to “validate” practices that have been around for thousands of years, I can’t say I would have been on board.
But Mind & Life is not about validation. Rather, the goal seems to be bringing together experts from both sides of the collaboration so they can finds points of overlap and learn from each other — a crucial element for any program hoping to bridge neuroscience with other fields. Sure, some of the studies have sought and confirmed scientific evidence of health benefits to meditation, like helping to treat mental illness, reduce chronic pain and generally improve bodily health. But these studies don’t seem to be conducted from a standpoint of, “Well, science has to prove that any of this works.” That kind of approach probably couldn’t fly anyway, given the central involvement of the Dalai Lama and committed practitioners of meditation, many of whom are also working scientists.
As with any collaboration, Mind & Life is continually learning and changing. In the past year, for example, it launched a humanities and social sciences initiative to give more voice to the humanities in understanding the mind. In fact, the Institute’s perhaps necessarily changing identity makes it a great case study for exploring what it even means for neuroscience to exchange with other fields.
That question has been taken on by history and sociology of science professor John Tresch, who chairs the science, technology and society undergraduate major at Penn. Tresch has studied Mind & Life on-and-off for several years, publishing a paper last year on their summer program (which CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg has twice attended). When I spoke with Tresch about the Institute, he made some interesting big-picture points. They mostly centered on the idea that no kind of science interacts with other disciplines as a purely intellectual entity. Rather, science comes embedded in a culture, which can’t help but influence the ways it relates to other perspectives.
For example, as Tresch explained, meditation plays a different role in Western conceptions of Buddhism than it does in countries with strong Buddhist traditions. This difference may affect the religious connotation of meditation across cultures and, in turn, influence its perception in scientific communities. Science and contemplative practice also have different attitudes toward introspection. While introspection has long been central to meditation, science has alternatively viewed it as an important tool (á la William James) or a dirty word (á la John Watson).
Such issues don’t have to hold back Mind & Life, but they are worth including in the conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re curious about science, contemplative practice, both fields or even the just big questions about the mind. Either way, all sides to this project — and its many participants — are something to keep an eye on.