Why Do Studies of Meditation and the Brain Matter?

Is the general public overvaluing and misunderstanding the significance of scientific studies of meditation and the brain?
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Is the general public overvaluing and misunderstanding the significance of scientific studies of meditation and the brain? These were the questions that I and my scientific and scholarly colleagues wrestled with at our 1-day meeting at the Mind and Life House in Amherst, Massachusetts, over the summer that was called in response to fulsomely positive articles in the media. We had a spirited discussion that has resulted in a position paper that that puts the public's overestimation of the brain science of meditation in a broader context.

The basic problem that we struggled with was how we could help the public understand the meaning and significance of the studies cited in popular articles. Take, for example, this article in Lifehacker. The simple declarative headline, "what happens to the brain when you meditate," makes it sound as if meditating is sort of like pushing a button and turning on a machine that gives you a nice, packaged, uniform set of responses that include "better focus, less anxiety, more creativity, more compassion, less stress, more gray matter."

This lumping together of responses across multiple different studies reflects a common misunderstanding. In general, these studies are based on group statistics and involve comparing a meditation group with a control group: even when there is a strong positive outcome in favor of the meditation group, not every single individual in the meditation group experiences a positive response. In fact, in many of the studies cited in the Lifehacker article, the differences between groups are not that large, and it would be highly unlikely that someone who signed up for a meditation class and joined all of these various studies would actually demonstrate all of the benefits seen across all of the different meditation groups being studied. And, importantly, just in terms of the simple law of averages, we would actually expect that some people in the meditation group will not benefit from meditation, and some might even be harmed or have their performance decreased by the practice.

So what does this mean for the individual reader of a Panglossian pro-meditation article (like this one in Huffington Post)? Our hope is that readers can learn to take all of the positive claims with a grain of salt. Don't get me wrong. The brain studies cited in Lifehacker and Huffpo are very promising. But for the most part, these studies remain exploratory. We know from experience that some of these studies are wrong and will not succeed in being replicated (since early-stage, small studies are usually biased towards the intervention being tested).

Given the likelihood that some of these trumpeted findings are not true, what should an interested newcomer to contemplative practice do? Here is where an open-minded form of curiosity about one's own experience could be helpful as one embarks on a practice, asking oneself questions like: what does this contemplative practice really feel like as I do it? What do I feel in my body when I practice? What do I feel later in the day? What does it feel like when I practice two days in a row? By starting to ask these types of questions and then listening deeply to the responses that follow, you may be able to develop your own "gut sense".

Ultimately, it may be this development of "gut sense" (which several early stage brain studies focusing on the insular cortex suggest may be facilitated by mindfulness practice (!)) that will help us as we inevitably, each one of us, have to face situations where a medical therapy or behavioral practice is offered in the context of real scientific uncertainty. Certainly our current knowledge of the brain, which is in its infancy, fits this description. With the science changing underneath our feet, and scientific methods in flux, it is difficult to precisely know the significance of any single study of meditation and the brain. Our own experiences as contemplative practitioners, on the other hand, will travel with us wherever we go.

That is, in meditation neuroscience science as in much of the rest of the brain science, a lot of what we think is true, that we "know" to be true, will turn out to have been wrong, or more generously, irrelevant. The upside of our current state of not-knowing, however, is that there is so much that is exciting and novel and path-breaking waiting to be discovered in the coming years, if we can remain open-minded and curious about both the science, and about our own experiences as practitioners.

Since their inception, the Mind and Life dialogues between scientists and contemplative practitioners, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have provided an important forum for this open-minded, curiosity about how the inner experience of contemplative practice maps onto neurophysiological measures. The ISCS meeting in Boston continues in this tradition of innovation and curiosity as numerous researchers will be presenting novel methods for rigorously analyzing the qualitative aspects of meditative experience, while others will be reporting on the use of cutting-edge scientific tools and paradigms looking at the effects of practice on brain structure and function, in recognition of the fact that, as much as we need to understand how practice elicits changes in moment-by-moment brain measures, we also need to have a high-resolution focus on how practice affects the actual moment-by-moment experiences of contemplative practitioners. Both matter.

This post is part of a series in conjunction with the 2014 Mind & Life International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, taking place October 30 - November 2 in Boston, MA. To learn more about the Mind & Life Institute, please visit here.

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