Our Meditation Research and the Science Behind it

Research into Meditation and Mindfulness

at Liverpool John Moores University

Meditation and mindfulness practice are considered to impact on several levels of our being and our experience. Thus, reseach that investigates effects and underlying mechanisms of meditation practice have to be conceptualised very broadly, with studies ranging from the analysis of subjective reports of meditators to changes in social processes, cognitive and affective changes, and ‘down’ to the fine-grained analysis of physiological changes as for instance hormones and markers of immune system function.

Instead of compartmentalising the research along traditional discipline boundaries, we are establishing an integrative approach, where diverse evidence converges to improve our scientific understanding of meditation and mindfulness. As the personal experience of meditators and the insights of previous meditation masters provide important first person data – immediate as well as codified into whole meditation systems – we think that the collaboration with experienced practitioners as well as experts representing specific meditation traditions provides additional depth to our research.


Pieces in a puzzle

 The projects we are carrying out are considered to provide glimpses of what meditation does to our body, our brain and our mind – parts of a large puzzle that over time will become more and more complete. In general, we are using four different approaches in this endeavour.

Firstly, we compare meditators and non-meditators on various parameters, including behavioural performance and neurophysiological parameters. Although such studies do not tell whether group differences are causally linked to meditation practice, they provide a first indicator as to which mental functions may improve. If, furthermore, a specific function co-varies with meditation experience (i.e. the more meditation experience a participant has the better they would tend to perform on the task), a possible causal role of the mind training may be carefully considered.

In a second, related approach we are considering dispositional mindfulness, that is how mindful somebody is in daily life, irrespective of any meditation experience or even knowledge about mindfulness per se. Here we would use scientifically validated mindfulness questionnaires that yield mindfulness estimates for each participants. Of concern is here which mental functions are positively related to mindfulness and, by implication, might benefit from improvements of mindfulness skills.

In a third approach levels of mindfulness are being raised by means of experimental inductions, for instance in form of a guided mindfulness practice. This approach provides information, whether transiently increased states of mindfulness have an influence on the experience or performance on different tasks.

In the final approach, and arguably the gold standard for studying the effects of any form of training, we conduct longitudinal studies to investigate the causal links between mind training and the functions and factors of interest. Here changes over time are investigated by randomly allocating participants to meditation training or an active control group. Such studies are necessary to rule out the possibility that differences between meditators and non-meditators are due to pre-existing differences or other indirect influences such as life styles. While crucially necessary for studying the effects of meditation, practical limitations of these longitudinal studies need to be acknowledged, too. Consider, for instance, a recent study by Brefczynski-Lewis et al. (2007), who investigated attentional functions in groups of meditators with estimated meditation experience of up to 44,000 practice hours. A time span of around fifteen years would be required to build up this level of expertise, if investing eight hours per day, a target that even for an exceptionally well-funded longitudinal study would be difficult to achieve.

Thus, for gaining a rounded and more complete understanding of meditation training, converging evidence from all different empirical approaches will be required, while taking the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of them into account.

Current Projects of our Research Group

Cognitive effects of meditation practice

Buddhist scriptures and meditation instructions predict that consequent meditation training will lead to a refinement of the ability to observe and regulate one’s own cognitive processes. Studying the changes of cognitive processes that are related to meditation practice will help us understanding how such practices work in principle and how they change the way a meditator may experience the world. >>>

Mindfulness and everyday living

Does one need to become buddhist to benefit from the meditation methods developed within the various buddhist meditation schools? – Not necessarily! Some of the methods practiced within buddhism are available to anybody who is interested in taking responsibility for their own life and improving their own situation. >>>

Meditation practice, well-being and flourishing

When asked about the purpose of his teachings the historical Buddha Shakyamuni answered about 2560 years ago in the following way: “I teach because all beings want to be happy and to avoid suffering.” Here, obviously, psychology kicks in. Are buddhists really happier people? Does their happiness or – to put it into psychology jargon – their ‘subjective well-being’ improve the more they get involved and experienced in buddhist practice? >>>

Conceptual issues of meditation and mindfulness

To advance research into meditation practice it is paramount to also improve the conceptual clarity. We are, for instance, discussing the relationship between traditional forms of mindfulness training as transmitted and practiced for millenia within different buddhist schools and their adaptation within Western psychology. >>>

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