Is Meditation Scientific?

In recent years a body of research has developed highlighting the mental and physiological benefits of meditation. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain waves in meditators are shifted away from the stress-prone right frontal cortex and more towards the calmer left frontal cortex, suggesting that meditation can help make us happier and calmer. While other studies have shown that meditation can help to reverse heart disease and enhance the immune system.

I’m a big fan of this research and am awe-struck at the positive effects that medition seems to have. Despite our increasing knowledge of the physiological and mental changes that meditation produces, however, it seems to me that relatively little research has explored the subjective experience of meditation. In this post I will try to explore whether the subjective feeling of what it is like to meditate can be studied scientifically.

To get us started it will help to have a quick primer on the scientific method. The scientific method is composed of three large pillars: injunction, illumination, and confirmation. Injunction refers to methodology, it is the sequence of steps that are carried out in an experiment. Illumination refers to the discovery that becomes apparent after completing the injunction, it is the results of an experiment. Confirmation refers to the process of checking the results with a body of experts who are qualified to asses the  validity of the illumination.

As an example, consider a pharmaceutical trial in which a new drug is being tested in order to determine it’s effectiveness in treating a specific disease. First, you would follow a sequence of steps that would define the trial. This is the injunction. You might give 20 people the drug and the other 20 people a placebo. A couple of weeks later you might then call the participants back to measure whether their symptoms had improved.

This leads to the second stage, illumination. Having collected the date on how the new drug affected the participants’ symptoms, you would then perform some type of statistical test on the data. Based on this analysis you would then be able to tell whether the drug had an affect on the disease or not.

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Finally, you would check your results by having them confirmed by others in the field. Perhaps you would have your paper peer reviewed, or maybe other teams might replicate your results. This is the confirmation step and provides a further safety check to make sure that your results are legitimate.

Often science is thought of as a body of knowledge about how the real world works. But this view is mistaken. The real defining aspect of science is the methodology.

Now, the important point of the scientific methodology is that it can be applied to a range of situations. The scientific method that Galileo used to determine the laws of falling bodies, is the same scientific method that psychologists use to determine how humans react in the presence of authority figures, and in fact is the same scientific method that all scientists use.

This brings us back to meditation. Just because the feeling of what it is like to meditate is a subjective experience does not mean that it cannot be studied scientifically. Just like the scientific method can be used by physicists, a version of it can also be used by meditators.

The first thing to notice is that meditation can often be thought of as a clear set of steps. Consider a meditative practice that involves sitting in the lotus position twice a day for five minutes while focusing on the breath. This is a well defined method and can be thought of as a scientific injunction.

The next thing to notice is that meditators often begin to have certain subjective experiences following a sustained period of meditation. These experiences can range from a feeling of calm, to a sense of oneness with the world, to anything between. To have these experiences it is necessary to follow the meditative injunction, we can therefore think of these experiences in the same way that we considered illumination in the examples above.

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Finally, most contemplative practices are entrenched in thousands of years of discussion and debate about the nature of the experiences. In other words meditation can also be thought to have a confirmation aspect in which experienced practitioners help to explain the experiences of beginners.

It seems then that to some extent a meditative practice can be thought of as a scientific endeavor. The claims of meditation are open to be explored by everyone. Simply follow the steps, wait for the illumination, and then confirm your results with others. The problem is that often people with no meditation experience will try to debunk the claims of advanced meditators. But this is like a non-physicist trying to assert an opinion about the truth of quantum physics. It is fine to voice an opinion, but unless the opinion is coming from someone who is an expert in the field then the opinion has no value.

Of course I am not suggesting that we should treat the claims of meditators as a literal description of how the world is. We should not simply accept a claim that advanced meditators literally loose their ego. Language can be deceptive and the risk of confirmation bias applies to all fields of study.

Still, it may be useful to acknowledge that meditation can be thought of as following a scientific process and may indeed be adding to our understanding of states of being that  we tend not to access in everyday life.

What are your thoughts on this matter? To what extent does the scientific method apply to meditation? Please write your thoughts in the comments below.

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