10/31/2014 01:42 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

Progress and Challenge in Contemplative Studies

As most everyone is aware, meditation is increasingly popular in the West. There has also been a marked increase in clinical, neuroscience, psychological and social science investigations of meditation, focusing on long-term practitioners and those participating in short-term mindfulness and related training programs. Comparing the first to the second five years of this century, there has been a more than 300 percent increase in the publication of basic and applied studies in this area that is now known as "contemplative science." Added to this is the burgeoning work in the humanities, critically examining both contemplative science and the ancient traditions from which modern meditation practices have been derived. This broader collective enterprise of science and critical scholarship is being referred to as "contemplative studies," and we appear to be in its golden age.

The vigor of this field of study is reflected in the many talks and poster presentations being given at the second biennial International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS), from October 30 to November 2 in Boston. Presenters include several of the most distinguished scientists, scholars, and contemplative teachers in the world, including His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. Over 1,500 attendees are anticipated, a number that is more than double those who attended the inaugural 2012 ISCS held in Denver. Progress in scientific and other academic investigations of meditation practices has been remarkable. However, as many of the presentations at the ISCS address, there is much we still do not understand about meditation, and considerably more careful and rigorous research is needed. There are conceptual and research method challenges unique to scientific studies of meditation that have limited the clear interpretation of recent research results. These include questions about how best to assess the subjective experience of meditation practitioners, how to define and measure mindfulness, a construct central to many meditation practices, how to overcome the inherent biases in self-report measures, and how best to interpret data from modern brain imaging methods.

Research evaluating the effectiveness of meditation-based interventions in medical, mental health, educational and business settings is difficult. The gold standard for evaluating interventions in biomedical settings is the randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment. In clinical drug research, participants are randomly assigned to receive either the experimental medication or a so-called placebo which looks and tastes like the experimental drug but is pharmacologically inert. In this way, both the participant and researcher are "blind" to which condition each participant has been assigned, thus controlling for several potential sources of bias. In applied meditation research, participants are often randomized to either a meditation training condition or a "wait-list" control condition in which there is no training but comparable testing before and after the period of time taken for the meditation training condition. A major problem for the interpretation of results from such research designs is that participants can never be truly blind to the condition in which they have been randomized. It is obvious to the participant whether they are or are not receiving meditation training. Why is this a problem?

In addition to whatever may be the impact of the meditation practice per se, those in the training condition are likely to be biased toward different expectations for benefit and such motivations as wanting to please the researcher, compared to those in the wait-list control condition. Thus, it is not possible to disentangle these sources of bias from the specific effects of the meditation practice itself. Because many of the available experimental studies of meditation in applied settings have employed this kind of research design, we are actually less confident about the effectiveness of meditation training than much of the popular press would suggest. Fortunately, alternative designs are possible, in which participants are randomly assigned to a meditation training condition versus another training condition, such as physical exercise, didactic instruction, or simple muscle relaxation training. When the meditation and other active training condition are carefully equated for such things as amount of training, amount of home practice, credibility and enthusiasm of instructors, then investigators can be more confident that any result that differs between the meditation and control groups reflects something specific to the meditation practice itself.

Fortunately, these kinds of randomized active control research designs are being increasingly employed and yielding critically important new data. Many such studies are being presented at the ISCS, boding well for the vitality and future progress of contemplative science. Similarly, the future health of the broader field of contemplative studies seems further assured by the work of humanities scholars being presented at the ISCS. The modern collaboration between meditation practitioners, scientists, and scholars is unprecedented, and the recent work being discussed in Boston suggests that these collaborators are actively engaging the many challenges of this new field of contemplative studies.

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.