5 Interesting Research Studies on the Science of Meditation

Updated on May 28, 2020
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I'm a therapist, yogi, and expat living in Asia. I love to write about psychology and meditation, two of my greatest passions.

A Changing Trend

Despite the fact that meditation has been around for at least a couple of millennia, intrinsically connected to the mystical and spiritual dimensions of human nature in diverse cultures, it went largely ignored by the scientific community up until a few decades ago.

This is but a logical consequence of the fact that meditation, as a systematic practice for spiritual exploration and development, had never been prominent in modern Western thought, with a few rare exceptions in Judaism and Christianity.

All that changed in the last half of the 20th century, and recently a new trend emerged which brought about important cultural transformations. Since the early 2000s, research on meditation has grown exponentially. Nowadays, meditation can be found in many places and embedded in many activities, from therapeutic programs to cultural trends like the mindfulness movement.

The mindfulness literature, now extended beyond strict Buddhist and psychotherapeutic contexts, has trended in some important directions, giving rise to both conflict and opportunity.

— Adam Valerio

The Science of Meditation

Before exploring a few elements of meditation's history in the West, let's discuss the research. Most of the earlier research papers that I have found date back to the '60s, the mid-'60s to be more precise. A very interesting exception is an article titled Buddhist Meditation in Burma, authored by Dr. Elizabeth K. Nottingham. The piece, which is not really a scientific study, was supposedly read at Harvard to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in November 1958 (Nottingham, 1960). Dr. Nottingham described to her audience several key aspects of meditation as practiced in the Theravada tradition; an exposition that was made with noteworthy clarity. According to several sources, she was part of a group of foreigners who participated in meditation sessions at the International Meditation Center in Burma during the 50s, under the guidance of U Ba Khin (whom I will mention once again later in this article).

Using resources like ProQuest, PubMed, Cochrane Library, and PsychNET, among others, I came across interesting article titles which included words like, yoga, yogic, Zen meditation, hypnosis, and archaic ecstasis, mixed up in a rather interesting way and revealing a certain mystic and esoteric aura around the topic. Today all of that has been substituted by terms such as mindfulness-based programs, post-traumatic stress, stress reduction, psychological interventions, and so on, pointing to a focus on the psychophysiological effects of meditation and its practical applications. The new terminology evinces the development and maturity of research efforts that approach the topic undaunted; all traces of mysticism have long vanished. This is most evident on many of the most recent studies that I have read, in which researchers explain with dexterity and clarity the intricacies of meditational practices, in a purely scientific, nonreligious, and nonsectarian manner.

Photo by Michal Jarmoluk @ Pixabay.
Photo by Michal Jarmoluk @ Pixabay. | Source

Five Interesting Studies

Without further ado, here is a list of five scientific articles about meditation that caught my attention. Research on meditation now spans many fields and disciplines, and the five examples here do not attest to that diversity. The list is obviously short and contains only papers that I have read and found noteworthy or thought-provoking, specially with regards to novel perspectives on meditation within the scientific community. I hope you have the chance to check some of them out, links to the articles can be found at the end.

1. A New Framework

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.01.005

The paper by Lutz and colleagues described what is now known in academia as focused attention and open monitoring meditation, or FA and OM meditation, and their work has been cited at least more than a thousand times in other papers. By describing meditative practices in such way, researchers constructed a theoretical framework through which they could subject meditation practitioners to rigorous scientific testing, thus advancing our understanding of the neurophysiology of meditative states. Relevant to this article is their work titled Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation (Davidson & Lutz, 2008), which also mentions the new terminology.

2. Beyond Putative Benefits

Schlosser, M., Sparby, T., Vörös, S., Jones, R., & Marchant, N. L. (2019). Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS One, 14(5) doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216643

Although not necessarily groundbreaking, Schlosser and colleagues do present a very interesting approach. The authors analyze how prevalent are the "unpleasant meditation-related experiences in a large international sample of regular meditators" (2019), and associated the incidence of these experiences with personal traits, demographic characteristics, and other personal factors.

Other earlier studies on the negative effects of meditation, particularly non-Buddhist Transcendental Meditation, are:

  • French, A. P., Schmid, A. C., & Ingalls, E. (1975). Transcendental meditation, altered reality testing, and behavioral change: A case report. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 161(1), 55–58.
  • Lazarus, A. A. (1976). Psychiatric problems precipitated by transcendental meditation. Psychological Reports, 39(2), 601-602.
  • Otis, L. S. (1984). Adverse effects of transcendental meditation. Meditation: Classic and contemporary perspectives, 201, 208.

3. A Long Meditation Retreat

Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., ... & King, B. G. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664-681.

Not many studies focus on long term meditation retreats. Jacobs et al. (2011) investigated the effects of a 3-month retreat on the cellular activity related to chronic psychological distress, specifically telomerase activity which involves RNA-binding proteins. Their study was the first "to link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity" (Jacobs et al., 2011).

4. Waves and Frequencies

Lee, D. J., Kulubya, E., Goldin, P., Goodarzi, A., & Girgis, F. (2018). Review of the neural oscillations underlying meditation. Frontiers in Neuroscience, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00178

Being a review, the paper by Lee and colleagues includes definitions of several key concepts in meditation research and a long list of relevant studies. This study is a personal favorite because it deals with a topic I'm very interested in: brainwave activity. Lee et al. mention that our understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of the benefits of meditation is still in a nascent phase (2018), and then proceed to a long exposition of how meditation correlates with brainwave activity going from delta all the way up to gamma frequencies.

5. Parting of the Ways

Valerio, A. (2016). Owning Mindfulness: A Bibliometric Analysis of Mindfulness Literature Trends Within and Outside of Buddhist Contexts. Contemporary Buddhism, 17(1), 157–183. doi:10.1080/14639947.2016.1162425

I find Adam Valerio's study quite interesting not only because it analyzes mindfulness from an interdisciplinary perspective, but mostly because it discusses how mindfulness has been dissociated from a Buddhist context and transformed into a practice and movement in its own right. As Valerio puts it when referencing to Virginia Heffernan's article on The New York Times: "Today, the proliferation of disembedded mindfulness practices—i.e., mindfulness in some measure removed from traditional Buddhist contexts—has reached into environments as varied as Fortune 500 companies, prison systems, politics, public education, military, healthcare, and even professional basket- ball" (Valerio, 2016, p. 1). Indeed, the mindfulness movement is raging on.

Increasing Interest in Meditation Research

Although research on meditation is still far from abundant, it surely seems to be growing at an exponential rate. A search on Google scholar for the word meditation alone threw a bit more than 1 million results, while the term anxiety reached over 3 million. Meditation is faring not badly against a disorder that has been studied since antiquity and has figured in medical treatises since the 17th century (Crocq, 2015).

The Outset

The earliest Western research on meditation that I have been able to find dates back to the 1960s, and I imagine the reason for this to be the fact that the '60s brought a powerful change in cultures around the world, and, among other things, bolstered the imbibing of eastern ideas into the collective consciousness of the West. This assimilation of ideas began in the turn of the 20th century, when the works of Swami Vivekananda, Soyen Shaku, Sri Aurobindo, Krishnamurti, and others arrived to the Western world. By the '60s, popular figures such as Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Robert Thurman, and Beat Generation authors such as Gary Snyder or Allen Ginsberg were talking openly about eastern philosophies, while The Beatles were traveling to ashrams in India. Time was ripe, novel influences were taking hold, the scientific community timidly followed suit, and thus research on meditation began.

Even so, the cultural revolution of the '60s was not the sole factor accounting for the growing interest of Westerners in the mysticism that was coming from the East. Before the 60s counterculture, there came a reform within Buddhist communities of Asia that transformed their religion and views on meditation. This reform is part of what scholars call "Buddhist Modernism" or "Protestant Buddhism" (Bechert, 1966; Gombrich & Obeyesekere, 1990), and its story goes something like this: After a period lasting several centuries in which meditation had been relegated from Buddhist life in favor of other activities such as "cultivating moral virtue, studying scriptures, and performing merit-making rituals . . ." (Sharf, 1995, p. 241), a group of Buddhist adepts revitalized meditational practices, reshaped them, and made them central to the life of lay and monastic practitioners alike. And it is these renewed practices what was adopted by the '60s counterculture.

Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder on the cover of the SF Oracle. Photo by Paul Kagan.
Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder on the cover of the SF Oracle. Photo by Paul Kagan. | Source

The Movement

The aforementioned reform that revitalized Buddhist meditation is associated with what is now known as the Vipassana Movement on one hand, and Japan's "New Buddhism," on the other. The former was helmed by Ledi Sayadaw and U Narada in Burma, Phra Acharn Mun (Mun Bhuridatta) in Thailand, and Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka; while the latter was led by Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki and Nishida Kitaro, among others (Heisig, 2001; McMahan, 2008; Sharf, 1995).

These two events constitute, according to some academics, the main shaping forces behind the form of Buddhism that became popular in the West; a very particular form that came into existence after a complex interplay of historical factors caused Asian proponents to modernize Buddhist ideologies and practices, imbuing them with post-Enlightenment European ideals. What a ride; the European Enlightenment influencing Orthodox Buddhism, and Buddhism then influencing the Beat Generation, all without modern globalization or internet.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, a prominent Western monk of the Thai Forest Tradition.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, a prominent Western monk of the Thai Forest Tradition. | Source

Vipassana

In the case of the Vipassana Movement, the historical factors leading to its development include the participation of important figures and institutions. For instance:

  • The Pali Text Society from London and the Buddhist Theosophical Society from the United States were instrumental in the translation of Ancient Theravada scriptures and the rekindling of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka.
  • The Maha Bodhi Society in Sri Lanka made similar contributions.
  • The Burmese Ledi Sayadaw, recognized as a gifted scholar, promoted the practice of Vipassana. His student U Ba Khin, not only was a key figure of the era himself, but also was the teacher of Satya Narayan Goenka, famous founder of meditation centers all over the world.
  • Another Burmese, U Narada (Mingun Jetavana Sayādaw) was also a renowned promoter of Vipassana meditation, and together with his student Mahasi Sayadaw popularized their "New Burmese Method" which is now one of the most famous techniques of Vipassana around the globe.
  • Mun Bhuridatta is said to have formed the Thai Forest Tradition to which several Western practitioners were ordained as monks, many of whom later became seminal figures in the propagation of teachings in the West.
  • And Anagārika Dharmapāla played a major role as well, as one of "the most important figures in the turn-of-the-century Sinhalese Buddhist revitalization movement and a key figure in the development of Buddhist modernism in Southeast Asia" (McMahan, 2008, p. 91).

Today, the majority of Buddhist meditation practitioners in the West can trace out their own practice all the way to one or several of these historical figures.

Conclusion

The dissemination of meditation in the West is a fascinating topic, involving complex interconnections between political events around the globe and modernization of ancient cultural practices. Some may say that this modernization is not free from decontextualization or even politicization. Either way, meditation is here with us now, more popular and accessible day by day.

Meditation's growing popularity is also spurring cultural transformations. While at the beginning it was the '60s counterculture and the rebirth of meditation in the East, the forces that disseminated meditational practices around the globe, it is now the mental health industry and the heirs to the New Age zeitgeist the ones to be behind the push. This trend is not only modifying mainstream media with things like the mindfulness movement, touting diverse meditative practices and a plethora of online classes by hordes of health practitioners, but also influencing the way in which we treat mental health patients, coach high level corporate officials, or educate personnel involved in international conflict mediation and non-military peacekeeping efforts (UNESCO, n.d.). Things have take quite an interesting turn, but for now, I'll leave my comments on this turn of events for later posts.

References & Further Reading

  • Bechert, H. (1966). Buddhismus, Staat und Geselschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda Buddhismus. Vol. 1. Frankfurt and Berlin: Alfred Metzner.
  • Crocq M. A. (2015). A history of anxiety: from Hippocrates to DSM. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 17(3), 319–325.
  • Davidson, R., & Lutz, A. (2008). Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation [In the Spotlight]. IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, 25(1), 176–174. doi:10.1109/msp.2008.4431873
  • Gombrich, R., & Obeyesekere, G. (1990). Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
  • Heisig, J. W. (2001). Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School. University of Hawaii Press.
  • McMahan, David L. (2008). The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press.
  • Nottingham, E. K. (1960) Buddhist Meditation in Burma. International Meditation Center. Rangoon.
  • Sandstad, J. H. (2017). Breathing Meditation as a Tool for Peace Work: A Transrational and Elicitive Method Towards Healing the Healers (Masters of Peace). Springer.
  • Sayadaw, M. (2015). The Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation (A basic Buddhist mindfulness exercise) (3rd edition) (Pe Thin, U, Trans.). Buddha Sasana Nuggaha Organization (Original work published 1954).
  • Sharf, R. (1995). Buddhist modernism and the rhetoric of meditative experience. Numen, 42(3), 228-283.
  • UNESCO Chair for Peace Studies. (n.d.). Universität Innsbruck. Retrieved February 20, 2020 from https://www.uibk.ac.at/peacestudies/unescochair/
  • Valerio, A. (2016). Owning Mindfulness: A Bibliometric Analysis of Mindfulness Literature Trends Within and Outside of Buddhist Contexts. Contemporary Buddhism, 17(1), 157–183. doi:10.1080/14639947.2016.1162425

Links to the Five Studies:

  1. ScienceDirect.
  2. nih.gov
  3. Science Direct
  4. Frontiers
  5. Taylor & Francis

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Lou Gless

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    • isabellefoster profile image

      Isabelle Foster 

      3 weeks ago from Piscataway, New Jersey

      Thank you for your very detailed research on meditation, Lou. I have recently found the transformative power of meditation and it has helped me overcome stress and self-doubt. How I lived without meditation for this long, I often wonder. Now that I have, I want to learn everything there is to know about meditation. Your article has helped immensely.

    • profile image

      Subani Moktan 

      3 weeks ago

      Thank you for your very detailed research on meditation, Lou. I have recently found the transformative power of meditation and it has helped me overcome stress and self-doubt. How I lived without meditation for this long, I often wonder. Now that I have, I want to learn everything there is to know about meditation. Your article has helped immensely.

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