The past decade has seen a wealth of neuroscientific research into the benefits of meditation, which goes far beyond mainstream conceptions of mindfulness.
A few years ago, philosopher Owen Flanagan appeared on the Partially Examined Life podcast to discuss his 2011 book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain. In this work, he argues that the Buddhist theory of human flourishing, when rendered in naturalistic terms, should be of interest to many in the West.
For Flanagan, implicit in Buddhism is the promise that one can achieve “a stable sense of serenity and equanimity” through the cultivation of Buddhist wisdom-which we might describe as a deep understanding of particular philosophical propositions and the Buddhist model of human psychology-alignment with Buddhist ethics, and embodiment of the virtues of compassion and loving-kindness.
What makes the project interesting is that, unlike much of Western philosophy, Buddhism contains a rigorous program of implementation for its virtue theory. By connecting philosophy, psychology, and ethics with a regime of practice, Buddhism becomes more of a way of life than a pure abstraction-and one that might be open to empirical validation. Such a project is not an simple one: bridges need to be built between the theory in question, the application of that philosophy, and the structure of experimental research. In short, we must be able to operationalize the philosophy, breaking it down into testable components, which, over time, can be knitted together to present a coherent meta-argument. While I am skeptical that such a project can have an end point, it may nonetheless yield interesting insights that should be of interest to the philosophically inclined.
Meditation is often placed at the center of such a project, though Flanagan, like well-known “Secular Buddhist” Stephen Batchelor, is critical of Western practitioners who attempt to sideline the importance of wisdom and ethical conduct. Some schools hold that meditation allows practitioners to directly realize the philosophical claims of Buddhism. While this might sound suspiciously like a claim to divine or esoteric wisdom, in reality the project is better describes as a detailed phenomenological examination of consciousness. Further, as writers like Flanagan, Batchelor, and Robert Wright argue, these philosophical propositions are generally congruent with insights from psychology, neuroscience, and Western philosophy.
I conceive of meditation as a tool that can help open up the psychological space required for self-transformation. The practice can can help us to become more conscious of automatic, subconscious processes in our brain, and so loosen the hold of emotional reactivity, bias, and self-delusion. Given this view, I am open to Buddhism’s claim that meditation can help individuals develop capacities that, when undertaken in parallel with instruction on Buddhist philosophy and ethics, can work to enable human flourishing. Like Flanagan, I am skeptical that these elements necessarily support each other, or cannot be reconceived or reconfigured.
But my view goes further than Flanagan’s, and is informed by the research that has taken place since the publication of The Bodhisattva’s Brain. Flanagan certainly recognized the potential for validating Buddhist practices and insights through cognitive science, but he was limited in the quality and scope of available research-which amounted to a study that demonstrated unusual oscillatory patterns in the brains of experienced meditators (the significance of which is unclear), and a handful of studies that suggest that meditation may moderately improve your mood. He seemed preoccupied with the question of whether we can prove that Buddhism leads to “happier” or more flourishing humans (and a question that he questions the relevance of in his postscript), which lead him to write:
“Regarding the current state of research, there are in fact no scientific studies yet on Buddhism as a lived philosophy and spiritual tradition, in any of its forms, and happiness.”
While the scientific validation of a way of life seems near impossible, the growing body of research concerning meditation does have implications for Flanagan’s interest in flourishing. It validates meditation as a practice to enable self-change and help us to live better and more contented lives. It may also suggest that there are many riches yet to be gleaned from Buddhism.
A growing body of research
Research into meditation and mindfulness has gained significant momentum in recent years. In part, this deluge is a result of the development of relevant technology and techniques: brain mapping has taken large strides forward, bringing with it a wealth of increasingly detailed neural correlates for psychological states, alongside functional models of how different regions in the brain are deployed for specific activities. Similarly, neuroplasticity has encouraged research that considers changes of brain structure over time.
Progress in this space has been documented by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson in Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, which represents a comprehensive survey of the more than 7,000 research papers on mindfulness and meditation. The opening is sobering: as Goleman and Davidson note, the majority of research in this space has been fundamentally flawed in one way or another, either because of technological limitations (like low-resolution MRIs), poor experiment design (say, the lack of an active control to counteract the Hawthorne Effect), and perhaps most significantly, a lack of knowledge on the part of researchers about the phenomena they were examining (which may lead to a mismatch between hypothesis, experiment design, recruitment of participants, and analysis).
There are a plethora of meditative techniques one can study, each with a focus on developing a particular skill or capacity. On the most basic level, it is important that researchers understand the aim of the technique in question. There is little use testing the capacity of loving-kindness meditation to develop concentration when the goal of the technique is to develop compassion. Further, these techniques need to be clearly operationalized. As an example, here is how Peter Malinowski of Liverpool John Moores University’s Research Centre For Brain And Behaviour conceives of concentration meditation:
Here you see the process of concentration meditation has been conceptualized as a series of cognitive operations (focusing, noticing the mind wandering, refocusing the mind), which have then been associated with the activation of particular neural networks. Such a model enables clear research design, through which we can monitor how concentration meditation affects the activation of particular neural networks.
Work such as this is helping improve the quality of research. Indeed, Davidson has been actively involved in improving research design through his work at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In Altered Traits he puts forward a coherent framework for future research, grouping techniques into three overarching types:
- Attentional: building focus, concentration, mindfulness, or meta-awareness
- Constructive: the cultivation of virtuous qualities like compassion and loving-kindness
- Deconstructive: insight meditation and observation into the nature of self-experience
To date, the vast majority of research has focused on attentional meditation techniques. Research into constructive meditation is currently in its infancy, though the early findings are promising. As for the deconstructive side, very little has been undertaken. Given that the deconstructive techniques represent the exploration (and the alleged first-person validation) of the major philosophical propositions of Buddhism, research in this area will be of particular interest in coming years.
Transformation through meditation
I want to give you a sense of the types of changes that are made possible through meditation. Here, I will quickly run through some of the major findings of Altered Traits.
First, consider the default mode network, a collection of interacting brain regions that are crucial to our sense of self, and which help us interpret reality through a near-constant, self-oriented narrative. This network is crucial for how we think about other people and plays a key role in theory of mind, moral reasoning, and social judgments, as well for remembering the past and projecting into the future.
Over the last decade we have significantly improved our understanding of how this network functions and its role in conscious experience. The default mode network is most active when our brain is at rest, filling the silence with ruminations on the past and worry about the future. To render this in terms of folk psychology, this region can be considered as the epicenter of egoism and anxiety, as well as a key source of unhappiness-so much so that research on this brain region has produced the adage, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
In opposition to distracted, egocentric mind-wandering are states of complete absorption. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called this state , in which our consciousness is seemingly unified with the task at hand. These sorts of states are highly pleasurable, with many of us seeking them out without being consciously aware of it.
Meditation, however, provides another path. The most basic form of attentional meditation involves an individual focusing on a single point-say, your breath, or a mantra, or some other physical stimulus. When the mind wanders, the practice is simply to notice that it has wandered, and bring the attention back to the intended point of focus. Neuroimaging has demonstrated what is happening in this practice: we are activating another set of brain circuits that quietens the default mode network. Davidson and Goleman label this an “altered state,” which is to say, a temporary change whose effect fades over time.
With continued practice, however, something remarkable happens: connections to the default mode network are weakened over time as other brain circuitry is strengthened. Eventually, we no longer need to call upon surrounding circuitry to quiet the default mode network: it becomes consistently quieter, without the need for meditation. This becomes an “altered trait”-a neurological change that endures over time. The effect is roughly described as the reduction of egocentricity, and a loosening of an individual’s fixed sense of self.
Similarly, attentional-mindfulness meditation can have a pronounced effect on the amygdala, the circuitry that triggers our “fight or flight” response. When we become stressed, anxious, or under threat, the amygdala effectively paralyses the executive function of the brain: we freeze, and are far less able to think clearly. Victims of burnout or post-traumatic stress disorders are effectively unable to stop this response.
The pattern essentially repeats itself here: at first, meditation allows us to use surrounding circuitry to actively quieten the amygdala until the connections to this circuitry itself are structurally weakened. In stressful situations, seasoned meditators produce less of the stress hormone cortisol. In real terms this means that, someone with a dampened amygdala response may be better able to act in times of crisis-or better respond to the suffering of another human being. This reduces reactivity, and opens up the possibility for a more ethical or thoughtful response to the situation.
Research has also established that or concentration meditation helps develop meta-awareness-the skill of being able to think about thinking. Such a separation from thoughts and emotions reduces reactivity, opening up a reflective space that allows an individual to gradually reshape their mind. This is important in that it opens up further flexibility in both perception and reactivity, dampening impulsiveness and allowing for greater mental clarity and control. In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright likens this to the ability to de-program evolutionary responses that we consider immoral or irrelevant given the context of modern life.
There are findings linked to pain perception too. A simple form of attentional-mindfulness meditation called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction has shown promise in reducing the amount of pain that individuals with chronic conditions suffer. These lowered pain levels lasted for a full six months, which are likely to have significant impact on an individual’s quality of life. More broadly, meditation has also been shown to decrease anxiety and depression at least as effectively as medication, through with no side effects.
Long-term research into meditation is in reasonably early stages. Still, there are notable results. One UCLA study has shown that, at age fifty, long-term meditators have brains that are seven and a half years “younger’ than non-meditators. The conclusion drawn is that meditation can help slow the aging and atrophy of the brain.
As noted earlier, these findings-and indeed the vast majority of research to date-focus on forms of attentional meditation. Research in constructive meditation is highly limited, but still intriguing. There exists a practice called loving-kindness (or ) meditation, which initially involves bringing to mind a mental image of an individual we feel warmly toward, and directing feelings of love and goodwill to them. Over time, the focus shifts on individuals we feel neutral towards, and then, eventually, people we might consider enemies.
Granted, this sounds a little odd, but this practice has shown to increase connectivity in brain circuitry involved in empathy, with evidence that this too can develop into a consistent mental trait. This practice is showing promise in helping patients who suffer from trauma. With such a finding, could Davidson and Goleman have helped identify the neurological mechanism for improved ethical action-namely the strengthening of neural circuitry associated with empathy and compassion? It’s too early to tell. Ultimately, both the constructive and deconstructive forms of meditation require much further research. Making the case for this is part of the motivation behind Altered Traits.
What can we say about meditation and human flourishing?
To recap, scientific research shows that long-term meditators have:
- Strengthened connectivity in circuits important for emotional regulation
- Strengthened the circuitry used to manage stress, leading to lower stress reactivity, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and less stress-induced inflammation
- Reduced mind-wandering and self-obsessed thoughts
- Increased meta-cognition
- Improved selective attention and sustained attention, coupled with increased readiness to act in any given situation
- Early evidence of improved immune response at a genetic level
- Reduced activity in the circuitry associated with wanting, desire, and attachment
- Brains that seem to age or atrophy slower
Goleman and Davidson attempt to tie these findings back to the core tenets of Buddhism, claiming that meditation can enable “lasting changes in our very being” where negative states like anger and greed can fade through time, and are replaced by compassion, kindness, and equanimity.
They refer to a 1,500-year-old Buddhist text, the Visuddhimagga, which details the process of psychological transformation that meditation can make possible, and which is still used as a vital resource for Buddhists in Thailand and Myanmar today. The text is introduced as:
“(a meditation) manual on how to traverse the mind’s most subtle regions offered (through) a careful phenomenology of meditative states and their progression all the way to nirvana. The highways to the jackpot of utter peace, the manual revealed, were a keenly concentrated mind on the one hand, merging with a sharply mindful awareness on the other.”
Is such a transformation possible? A wealth of evidence demonstrates that meditation can alter both the structure of our brain and our psychological responses. What is needed now are studies that examine a suite of meditative techniques, as presented in a text like the Visuddhimagga. What do the collective effects of such a program-say, improved meta-cognition; increased concentration; reduced stress, egoism, and emotional reactivity; and a greater capacity for active-empathy-say about Buddhism’s capacity to enable human flourishing? And how do the dimensions of Buddhist philosophy and ethics interact with the effects of meditation?
This is fertile ground. Perhaps here, for the first time, we can see strands of psychology, religion, and neuroscience coalescing into a rich and deeply pragmatic modern philosophy-one that not only puts forward a system of ethics, and a theory of mind, but demonstrably alters perception, action, and psychological well being. While Owen Flanagan is ultimately critical of Buddhist ethics, he nonetheless writes that:
“Outside of Plato in the West, I know of no other philosophical theory that draws such intimate connections among metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.”
Those who are philosophically inclined should consider both developments in cognitive science and the philosophy of other cultures as potential sources of insight. As evidence builds in favour of the value of meditation, we should look more seriously at secular and naturalistic forms of Buddhist philosophy as they are interwoven with Western philosophical traditions.
Be sure to hit follow to get alerts about my new articles on Buddhist practise and philosophy.