Meditation Research

Information and Resources about Scientific Research into Meditation

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.

All projects we are carrying out are considered to provide small glimpses of what meditation does to our body and our mind - parts of a large puzzle that over time will become more and more complete.

 

Current Projects

 

Cognitive and neural effects of Buddhist practice

Buddhist scriptures and meditation instructions predict that consequent meditation training leads to a refined ability to observe ones own cognitive processes. As cognitive neuroscience is inherently interested in understanding these processes, a slowing down of cognition – as may occur through meditation practice – and a direct observation of the ongoing processes may offer rich insights into the nature of cognition.
Here an important question to be asked is, whether the predicted changes in cognition (e.g. enhanced perception or attention) can be confirmed empiricaly. Furthermore, are they accompanied by particular changes in brain activity?
Based on these findings one may then go on asking whether these direct observations of ones cognitive processes offer insight into the nature of perception/cognition itself.


Meditation practice and attentional networks:
Funded by the BIAL Foundation, this one-year project (August 2009 - July 2010) investigates the effect of regular meditation practice on the dynamics of attentional networks by means of high density EEG recordings. It is carried out in collaboration with Prof Gruber (University of Osnabrück) and Dr Supp (University Hospital, UKE, Hamburg).

 

Healthy Ageing: Neuroprotective effects of mindfulness practice:
In two projects funded by the BIAL Foundation and LJMU's Institute for Health Research we are investigating whether mindfulness practice can be useful in slowing down and preventing some aspects of cognitive ageing by stimulating neural plasticity and cortical reorganisation. These projects combine cross-sectional as well as longitudinal approaches with the aim of unravelling which cognitive processes might benefit from mindfulness practice, what the effectiveness of such programmes is and what the underlying psychological and neural mechanisms of change are.

 

Distinguishing different meditation states:
To fully investigagte and understand the changes resulting from meditation practice it is paramount to be able to differentiate between various states of meditation, which are conceptually distinguished on theoretical grounds and phenomenologically, i.e. based on first person accounts. In an MEG study at the Institute for Neurophysiology and Pathophysiology at the University Hosital Hamburg-Eppendorf and we are currently investigating differences in neural patterns when experienced meditators voluntary enter different states of meditation.

 

Meditation, mindfulness and attentional functions:
We investigate the relation between meditation experience, self-reported mindfulness andthe efficiency of attentional resource allocation over time, also considering how working memory functions are related to these processes. As a first step a cross-sectional approach comparing meditators with non-meditators is employed. This will allow determining important parameters before more extensive, longitudinal data are collected.

 

Buddhist practice and subjective well-being

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?
This question generates more and more interest and first results, including our own study into subjective well-being and meditation (König, Asendorpf, McIlroy, Tydecks & Malinowski, submitted), suggest that this really might be the case.

 

Implementing mindfulness in everyday life

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. In particular, John Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme has become a very popular approach for training people in becoming more aware and mindful in daily life. MBSR primarily focuses on patients with chronic diseases and thus has a strong focus on developing a different perspective on the disease and the stress and pain it may cause. A quite significant body of research exists trying to evaluate this approach and some well controlled studies suggest that it really is beneficial for the patients.
My own interest is, however, less related to clinical applications. I am in the process of establishing a programme which focuses on ordinary people who, like all of us, are faced with pressures of life and would like to take active measures to develop a more balanced approach. Here my first concern is to determine whether a mindfulness-based approach is also helpful for the general population and under what circumstances. On the longer term I would then be interested in pin-pointing the main processes of change and development that take place when we develop a more mindful way of life.
Some projects are already under way:

Mindfulness and Eating Behaviour:
In a one-year project funded by Mersey Care (NHS Trust) and a PhD studentship funded by LJMU's Faculty of Science we are investigating how dispositional and trained mindfulness are related to eating behaviour and eating disorders. The long term aim of these projects is the development and evaluation of a mindfulness-based intervention for eating disorders and unhealthy eating (Lattimore, Fisher, & Malinowski. (2011).

Mindfulness in Teacher Training:
Funded by an LJMU Learning & Teaching grant we are investigating the effects of a mindfulness course on the teaching experience of new and established teachers.

 

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.
Another question concerns the question, as to whether mindfulness can be operationalised in terms of psychological concepts. Some ideas concerning this question can be found in Malinowski (2008).
Of fundamental importance is furthermore the detailled classification of meditation states and meditation systems as they are practiced within specific buddhist traditions. As long as the specifities of different meditation practices, their similarities and differences are not clearly understood conceptually, it will remain difficult to advance their scientific description.

Our collaboration with Alberto Chiesa and Alessandro Serretti from the Institute of Psychiatry, University of Bologna, Italy focuses on clarifying the conceptual basis underpinning current research into mindfulness and meditation practice more generally. While the popularity of mindfulness-based practices in clinical and non-clinical settings is growing exponentially, comprehensive, evidence-based theoretical frameworks for positioning this research is sketchy and inconsistent. For instance, the term mindfulness is conceptualised in several distinct ways, denoting a meditation practice, a state of mind, a personal disposition or even an attitude towards one’s own thoughts and feelings. More conceptual clarity is needed to guide the related research. Beyond providing an overview and summary of differences and commonalities regarding the different mindfulness-based approaches, we are currently working on establishing a theoretical framework that accounts for psychological processes underlying the development of mindfulness through meditation practice. In a recent publication we provide an overview of the main mindfulness-based approaches and discuss their differences and commonalities (Chiesa & Malinowski, 2011).

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