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The Science behind Meditation 1

As a scientist, one of the major things that attracted me to Buddhism was its empirical approach.  Buddha exhorted people not to believe anything simply on faith, but to test it for themselves.

“Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65)

I have become very interested in the burgeoning science of meditation and mindfulness.  Although I was initially uncomfortable with psychological science studying Buddhist-inspired issues, it is clear that our science is well-positioned to provide empirical data on topics such as mindfulness, empathy, compassion, cognitive biases, etc.  This conclusion seems to be shared among many respected scholars, as we have begun publishing studies of these types in our top peer-reviewed scientific journals.

For example, one new study that recently crossed my desk was published in the APS’s flagship journal, Psychological Science.  In this study 39 adults were randomly assigned to one of three groups (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno, 2013).  They either (1) received 8 weeks of instruction in meditation using a mindfulness approach, (2) received 8 weeks of instruction in meditation using a compassion approach, or (3) were assigned to a waiting-list control condition. 

After 8 weeks, the participants were all asked to come into the lab under the guise of completing some cognitive tests.  When the participants arrived (individually), they came to a waiting area with three chairs.  Two were already occupied by female research confederates.  About one minute after the participant sat down, a third female confederate, the “sufferer,” arrived around the corner, walking with a cast and crutches.  The sufferer winced visibly while walking, and stopped once she realized there were no chairs left, sighing audibly.

Compassionate responding was measured simply – did the participant give up his/her chair to the sufferer?  Other studies of prosocial behavior have found that we are strongly influenced by the presence of others.  If the others around us act concerned, we become more concerned and are much more willing to help someone.  If the others around us act unconcerned, we usually don’t help.  The sitting confederates were both instructed to ignore the sufferer.  This should seriously reduce the odds that anyone would help the sufferer.  Yet, in this study, 50% of those who had been trained in meditation gave up their seats within two minutes, compared to only 16% of those who were interested in learning meditation but who had not yet undergone training (waitlist control).  There were no significant differences between the two styles of meditation training, although the sample sizes were very small.

As the scientific evidence like this begins to accumulate, it will get harder to ignore meditation as a “fad” or “new age mumbo jumbo.”  What types of studies would you like to see conducted?

 

More info about the study can be found here and here.  Photo sources:  Paul Condon by Brooks Canaday, and here.

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Comments

Study design

I could imagine a few approaches to access groups of parents for a study like this. One option could be to go through community centers or social service organizations that offer parenting skills classes / support groups, and use a setting like that as a venue for training. This might allow you to compare to other types of parenting classes (i.e. randomly assign to mindfulness training vs. more conventional parenting skills class). Perhaps in addition to this you could build in a waitlisted control group as well. I think a comparison with a more conventional training could have a bunch of advantages. It might help you tease out whether any potential effects are due to the actual content of the instruction as opposed to more general social effects of getting together as a group and new sources of social support that might come out of it that are not necessarily specific to the mindfulness content of the training.

Other possibilities: recruiting through day care centers, schools, pediatricians' offices (with flyers, etc.), or more targeted venues like breastfeeding support groups.

Thank you for starting this discussion

Thank you, Douglas, for starting this conversation. In healthcare I have noticed mindfulness become a more commonly used term, especially in the area of pain and symptom management. I would be especially excited to see research conducted on mindfulness and parenting - maybe this has already been explored? Personally, I have found meditation and mindfulness practice has been a positive influence in my own experience as a parent. It has helped to reduce anxiety about how I parent and has enabled me to be more present and joyful with my daughter and more able to accept her own difficult feelings. I would love to see some research that looks at the ways in which mindfulness practice in parents might influence children in terms of their own security, confidence, learning to regulate their emotions, and more. Have you seen any studies like this? -Miriam

Meditation and parenting

This is a great area for study.  As far as I know (but I'm not expert in this area of research), there haven't been many good studies of meditation/mindfulness on parenting.  There are lots of reasons to expect beneficial effects, however (which I would consider good scientific hypotheses). 

Here are some things I found where people talk about the theoretical benefits:

http://brainwave-research-institute.com/how-meditation-helps-you-be-a-better-parent.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bCutO59pNo

Here is a study that looked at parenting of autistic children: http://ebx.sagepub.com/content/14/3/169.short

I'd be very interested to design and conduct a study on this.  The trick would be to find groups of people who wanted to undergo training and have a control group (perhaps on a waitlist for the next training), and would be willing to let us survey them.  Does anyone have access to such populations?

Study design

I could imagine a few approaches to access groups of parents for a study like this. One option could be to go through community centers or social service organizations that offer parenting skills classes / support groups, and use a setting like that as a venue for training. This might allow you to compare to other types of parenting classes (i.e. randomly assign to mindfulness training vs. more conventional parenting skills class). Perhaps in addition to this you could build in a waitlisted control group as well. I think a comparison with a more conventional training could have a bunch of advantages. It might help you tease out whether any potential effects are due to the actual content of the instruction as opposed to more general social effects of getting together as a group and new sources of social support that might come out of it that are not necessarily specific to the mindfulness content of the training.

Other possibilities: recruiting through day care centers, schools, pediatricians' offices (with flyers, etc.), or more targeted venues like breastfeeding support groups.

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