Back in the late 1960s, when I was collecting material for my anthology Altered States Of Consciousness, I had a hard time finding any scientific literature on meditation. I was not surprised, as I knew from my graduate education in psychology that very few Western scientists, particularly psychologists, knew anything at all about meditation, and did not value it. If they thought about it all, they probably thought meditation was some strange practice of a religious sort, done by people in foreign lands who did not have the benefit of a modern education, and there was probably something schizophrenic about meditators. Although science supposedly is open to investigate any kinds of questions, there are social norms within various professions, and meditation was simply not a respectable topic for any scientist, especially psychologists who were still somewhat insecure about their status in the social hierarchy of science, to look into.
I had had a similar experience about taboo topics back in graduate school. I had always been a very rich dreamer, and while I had read most of the scientific literature about dreaming, there wasn’t all that much of interest to me. Behaviorism, an insistence that what you could objectively observe people to do was the only real data, rather than subjective stuff like thoughts, feelings or dreams, was the guiding paradigm in psychology. So when I wanted to do my masters and doctoral research projects on aspects of dreaming, my advisors basically advised me not to pursue it, dreams were merely subjective, not a fit subject for scientific research, and certainly not a good career move. “Subjective” meant “bad” to behaviorists. I could see that from their perspective, wanting me to have a successful career, this was good advice. I was stubborn, though, and wasn’t about to give up.
Although the research had been done several years before but was not well circulated, around this time Aserinsky and Kleitmans’ research on sleep became known. They found that there were distinct periods of brain wave activity during sleep, accompanied by binocular asynchronous rapid eye movements (REMs), and if you woke people from these stage 1-REM periods you almost always got a report of dreaming. Indeed it looked like the rapid eye movements were actual scanning of the visual imagery within the dream world. When I showed this research to my advisors, it was what I needed. If dreams had physiological correlates like brainwave changes and rapid eye movements, they must be real!
What is Real?
Now at one level, this was quite silly. What is real is real, regardless of what we think about it, but it’s certainly true that what is real for some people is what fits comfortably within the belief systems they already have, and they tend to simply ignore or reject stuff that doesn’t fit in their belief systems. Now dreams had attained the status of the real because there were brainwave changes, and then, as it is now, so many people think of the brain as the real source of consciousness, that the brain changes made dreams real, and so it was now reasonable and legitimate to research them. I used the new technique of monitoring people’s brain waves and REMs through the night to collect a lot of dreams, and to demonstrate, in a fairly rigorous way, that you could use posthypnotic suggestion to control both the content and process of nighttime dreaming.
Looking for material for my Altered States Of Consciousness book some years later, though, meditation was still in that unreal category that dreams had been in, so there weren’t many scientific studies of meditation to be found. In my introduction to the section on meditation research in my book, I “bragged” that I was bringing together two thirds of the English language literature on meditation research. That sounded impressive, until you realized that I had only been able to find three studies! 😉
Then a study appeared in the very high prestigious scientific journal, Science, that showed that there were physiological changes accompanying a basic form of meditation, Transcendental Meditation. Just as it happened with dreams before, the ontological status of meditation instantly changed: meditation was real, it affected the brain! Now it was legitimate to study it.
I’m delighted to say that four decades later there are now thousands of studies of meditation. Indeed, I haven’t even attempted to keep up with the scientific literature on this anymore, it’s simply too much, it would take up all my time and there’s so many other things I’m interested in. But there is a second reason I haven’t kept up with it, and that’s because it isn’t of much interest to me.
Almost all of this recent scientific literature on meditation is about using meditation to help relieve the negative effects of stress. That use is wonderful! Most of us live lives that are full of stress, and anything that helps us relax and handle it better is of great benefit. The size of the helping effective meditation is usually comparable to something like exercise, or taking a nap, sometimes more. That’s also fine. But my primary interest in meditation has always been in its original use, exploring the deeper, spiritual areas of human consciousness and helping spiritual development. There is very little research along that line.
Meanwhile research continues to show that meditation not only helps many stress related problems, but continues to correlate with physiological changes in the brain. Remember, so many of us take brainwave changes as our ultimate criterion that something is real, rather than “imaginary”, that this continuing legitimization of meditation is politically very helpful in promoting research and, in the long run, will make research on the deeper aspects of meditation more likely. Here are three references to recent research of this sort that my friends at GlideWing sent me, for example. They are interesting in and of themselves too.
Mindful meditation tied to healthy brain changes –
Mindful Multitasking: Meditation First Can Calm Stress, Aid Concentration –
Why meditation helps you focus: Mindfulness improves brain wiring in just a month –
When I was preparing my lectures for the online workshop I’ll be doing for GlideWing in August (see my March 17th post, Teaching Meditation and Mindfulness: How Well Can It Be Done Online?, I thought a lot about how much I should talk about the findings of modern research on meditation. I’m a scientist, I’m known for my research on altered states processes like meditation, wouldn’t people expect a discussion of research findings from me? Might it be good to add a scientific gloss of this sort simply to encourage people to meditate? But I decided that while I’m all for continuing to develop meditation to help various forms of stress and other kinds of difficulties, and I’m fascinated by the way we’re learning more about possible physiological changes with meditation, that wasn’t my real interest, and I didn’t want to take time away from the core training of mindfulness with too much intellectual material.
I care strongly about meditation as a way of training your mind to be able to study itself, because it’s hard to soundly improve the functioning of your own mind or advance spiritually in ignorance. So I skipped that scientific gloss for the GlideWing online workshop. People can find lots of references to this kind of research on the Internet anyway, and, while trying to be “scientific” in the sense of being very clear about what I was teaching about formal meditation techniques and mindfulness in life practice, a self-knowledge and spiritual growth theme would run through everything I taught about.
I think the lecture recordings, now being edited and polished by GlideWing, came out very well, and I’m looking forward to working with students in the initial August 4 to August 26th workshop. I get lots of opportunities to exercise the scientist side of my personality, it’s going to be interesting to focus on the mindfulness teacher side…
Is it More Real?
So has meditation really become more real because we can see some correlations with brain changes? I think the reality is that these correlations are still mainly of political, justification value. Meditation worked for a lot of people over many centuries before we knew the brain was an important part of the body! In the long run, I think better knowledge of how the brain is involved in spiritual growth will help us make meditation and other growth practices more effective. Meanwhile, basic meditation and mindfulness in real life, the latter being my prime concern in the online workshop, can be learned even if you think the brain is made of green cheese….. 😉
But I’m pragmatic dualist. I think there’s something essential about mind that is “nonphysical,” that is spiritual in a real sense and not just an aspect of brain functioning. The analogy I’m fond of is that consciousness is like a car with a driver. The driver is that mind part. If all you study is the car, the physiology and electrochemistry of the brain, it will be very interesting, and it might tell you how the car can be driven more effectively, but it won’t tell you anything about where the car is going to go. You need to understand the driver too. We need a lot more research on the nature of the driver, our spiritual side per se, and the workshop is aimed at giving people tools to be able to observe the driver in action, as it were, and have that deeper self-understanding that will form the basis of real growth.
Incidentally GlideWing now has a brief video of me up describing what I teach in the online workshop. I normally find it boring to look at videos of me lecturing, but I must confess that when professional video folks work things over, it can be charming! 😉
I don’t know what the limit will be on the number of students who can take this first Mindfulness workshop, but if you’re interested I would advise registering soon.’