The Science of Meditation

Since Buddhism was introduced in the United States starting in around the 1960s, a great deal of scientific research has been conducted to validate some of the claims maintained by Buddhists across the millennia. This has profound implications for anyone on the planet. The Buddhist claims that promise improved mental health and elimination of many kinds of suffering, with cutting-edge scientific methods, are now being verified and even extended to new heights.

We are entering a new era of spirituality that is likely to shatter old paradigms and usher in a completely new age of political-social-environmental organization. What has been discovered in only a few decades will make a permanent impact on modern psychology, and redefine what a human being is capable of.

The main areas of meditation research can be categorized as follows:

  • Validation of the Stages of Meditation – studies trying to determine whether there are a set of developmental stages that meditators go through as the progress. Validation studies can help us find out how people grow through meditation and how different practices achieve different results. Studies like Shinzen Young, The Mind Illuminated System, Daniel P. Brown’s Validation Study on The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, all point towards a stage-based progression of the meditation practice where the student makes incremental improvement towards the goal.
  • Outcome of Meditation Practices on Personal Well-being – these studies look at long-term benefits of meditation on personal well-being, like reduced anxiety and depression, improved emotional stability, increased attention span, relaxation response, and more. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) and Transcendental Meditation (TM) are great examples of the fruit of this kind of research. MSBR and TM are proven meditation methods to retrain one’s natural reaction to stress and anxiety. This kind of research is ongoing and new developments are happening every day.
  • Neural Correlates of “Subjective” States – this kind of study tries to identify specific brain regions and activity that might be correlated with meditation. We already know meditators have smaller amydalas (the amygdala helps modulate aggression and anger) and it’s starting to look like a host of other brain regions related to attention, focus, sense of self, and perception of time and space, are all being modulated during deep meditative experiences.
  • Developmental Research – new research that attempts to develop devices, methods, and teaching styles that greatly accelerate the time span required for the meditative path. The ancient Hindu’s thought that enlightenment took lifetimes, literally, and looking at the state of humanity today you might see why they thought this. Some modern teachers (teachers I’ve met and know) now think completing the whole meditative path, if done quickly, can take a decade or two. For most of us, this is still a really, really long time, although an infinite improvement over “lifetimes.” Do you have that kind of time? Given the circumstances in the political world and the larger environment, it isn’t clear that we have twenty years, or even ten, left to enlighten ourselves. We have problems right now. New research, through biofeedback devices and radically updated teaching protocols, is trying to shave more time off the modest two decade promise. For a taste of this kind of thinking, see the new Muse 2 Headband, or similar devices or the teachings of Shinzen Young, Culadasa, Daniel P. Brown, and so on. Connecting a microcomputer to your forehead to measure alpha brainwave activity was never possible before in human history; does this mean that now anyone can meditate even without the prerequisite of a monastery and master teacher? What radical change can happen when the best meditation teachers across the globe are only one phone appointment away, instead of a trip to Tibet or China?

A Quick Reminder

I urge you not to get caught up in the trap that I did, which was the mistaken assumption that reading about meditation is equivalent to actually meditating. Especially important with regard to meditation practice, you cannot stop at just understanding the scientific studies or comprehending the theoretical model on which this research is based. If you really want to see a change in your own life, you have to try it for yourself, you have to undertake the methods as if they were a scientific experiment where your mind was the laboratory. You must do the experiment, do it on yourself, and then see if you agree with the findings or not. To refute the claims before trying the methods wont help you to get any closer to personal change or an inner transformation.

Science and Meditation

Brain Science – Meditation and The Default Mode Network.

The first crucial step to understanding the science of meditation is to understand the Default Mode Network (DMN). The Default Mode Network (DMN) is an interconnected set of brain regions that play a particularly important role in the management of attention, awareness, and our internal sense of self. The two main regions involved, apparently functioning as connection hubs for a slew of other minor brain regions; the primary hubs of the DMN include:

  1. the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and
  2. the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (amPFC)

Read More about Meditation and the Default Mode Network.

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