Resources for Researchers

Science

Resources for Researchers

To accompany the paper and the course, these resources are meant to help new and existing researchers identify theoretical and empirical literature, measures, methods and protocols, and suggestions for future studies in several domains identified by the Future of Mediation Research Group as essentially wide-open fields for investigation.

Mystical, Transcendent, and Transformative Experiences

Introduction

Mystical experiences are a common component of religious traditions across human history. National-sample surveys show that approximately 30-50% of Americans endorse having had what they would consider a mystical experience. Mystical experiences can occur spontaneously or can be elicited by a variety of rituals, such as meditation, prayer, fasting, and dance, as well as ingestion of naturally occurring substances (e.g. plants with psychoactive properties). Both historical and modern descriptions of mystical experience reveal common themes, including feelings of unity and interconnectedness with all people and things, a sense of sacredness, feelings of peace and joy, a sense of transcending normal time and space, ineffability, and an intuitive belief that the experience is a source of objective truth about the nature of reality. One challenge for research would be to define, using surveys and other instruments, what is a mystical state - how to qualify them - if there is one or several.

One reason why mystical or transcendental experiences have not been examined is because they are a challenge for science to study. These experiences are rare and hard to reproduce in laboratory settings. Research has attempted to elicit mystical-type phenomena in controlled conditions using various induction methods, such as meditation, sensory deprivation, solitary wilderness expeditions, and administration of psilocybin (a psychedelic chemical found naturally in some types of mushrooms).
Experiments carried out with split-brain patients indicate that the distinction between thoughts and awareness might have a biological basis. These experiments demonstrate that thoughts are not awareness. Thoughts can spontaneously arise as ad hoc explanations for what is happening but may not reflect the reality of the situation. A few studies have focused on moments where meditators realize that they have lost track of their meditation: this is a meta-conscious event, but these meta-conscious events are still different from a mystical states although they could be related to it. The state where awareness is the doer and initiator of the thoughts, has been understudied.

As these experiences are part of many meditation practices, it is important to begin to systematically employ scientific methods to better understand the character and implications of these transformational experiences. While many meditation practitioners strive to attain and maintain mystical states as a goal of their meditation practice, very few experimental studies have systematically examined the acute mystical state and longer term effects of being in that state.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Measures

Possible Experiments/Topics to Study

Social and Relational Aspects of Meditation

Introduction

To date experimental studies of meditation have focused on the brain and subjective experiential correlates of meditation practice within individual subjects meditating by themselves in controlled environments. However, meditation has traditionally been taught in a relational manner, often from a teacher to a student or group of students. Indeed, human beings are fundamentally social animals and the development of meditative practices have been influenced both by a more individually-relevant attempt to transcend or liberate one’s self from suffering and realize something more fundamental about human experience and the nature of reality, as well as being both shaped by social norms and having significant effects on social functioning of groups wherein the practices are adopted. Many goals of meditation practice are specifically oriented towards pro-social emotions and behaviors including empathy, compassion, patience, and kindness. The contemplative science literature has begun to expand upon studies of these prosocial emotions and a clinical science of compassion and loving-kindness based practices.

Practitioners from a wide variety of spiritual traditions occasionally report strong psychophysiological responses when they are in the presence of a spiritual teacher who has achieved some level of mastery, particularly when the teacher directs attention or intention toward the practitioner. These reports are common across spiritual traditions, being described most frequently in those that are based in Hinduism and Buddhism. In these traditions, the phenomenon is thought to reflect a transmission of “spiritual energy” from teacher to student. Recipients also report the subjective experience of receiving such transmissions at a distance, or by listening to a recording or by simply looking at a picture of the spiritual teacher. Open questions on this topic that science could tackle for example: What are the psychophysiological correlates of the experience of spiritual transmission on the part of the transmitter and the recipient?

There are numerous meditation approaches that encourage meditators to come together to practice. And even more profuse are the testimonies from individuals that meditating in the presence of others can deepen concentration, focus and the meditation experience. What is less well known is why this is so. Research on social norms and social influence suggests that the mere presence of other people changes the nature of an individual’s experience such that an individual’s motivations and behavioral choices occur in response to the normative behaviors. Simple examples of this can be found in the social conformity and social facilitation literature. However, it is possible that there is second level of influence brought to bear upon individuals practicing meditation in a room with other people.

We believe some simple research questions have yet to be answered regarding to what extent is meditation is solely an individual experience and to what extent can it be a shared interpersonal experience. And further, what is the nature of the bond that connects individuals such that the meditation practice is impacted by the presence of others (both favorably and as a detriment to the deep experience possible through meditation)? Indeed, our survey data suggest individuals have unique interpersonal experiences during meditation. Can such subjective phenomena be attributed to placebo or expectancy effects? Do these phenomena require proximity? Do they depend upon the receptivity or life experience of the participants? These are intriguing research questions that have yet to be comprehensively explored.

The cultural context and values held by the meditator’s community (and within the practitioner) may impact meditative experiences. For example, a person who operates from a collectivist cultural orientation might have different experiences of meditative benefit than those who come from more individualistic cultures. It is important that researcher start addressing the role of meditation environment - including beliefs - in meditation experience.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Measures

Possible Experiments/Topics to Study

Context of Meditation Practice

Introduction

The environment in which a person practices meditation also has been noted to have an influence on meditative experience. We will differentiate the external - physical space and objects - and the internal environment – or the beliefs and background of the practioner.

Regarding the physical environment, many of the religious traditions practiced include objects, icons, rituals and places of practice that are thought to enhance the meditation practice. There are a potpourri of perceptual cues that include incense, candles, images, music, bells, and the wearing of special clothing (usually of natural fibers), near the skin.  Consumption of sacred foods, chemicals, and drinks also has been noted in many meditative religious and spiritual practices. Additionally, there is the common emphasis on the place of worship.  Sacred temples, churches, places are recognized by many meditation traditions as facilitating a deep meditative practice.  In some cases, even in solitude the context is thought to “carry” a person into the meditative practice.  

On one level the impact of these contextual variables may be cues associated with the meditative practice. Simple behavioral pairing could explain some of the impacts of why a building, site, object, would be positively related to sitting in meditation. Another possible mechanism is that when meditation occurs, subtle environmental shift occur as well in a building, room, place, object shifts.  Some talk about the stillness of a temple or old church – but a measurement of that stillness has yet to occur.

Future experimental research could easily be conducted to examine the impact of contextual variables on meditative practice. Using a simple experimental paradigm, researchers could randomly assign participants to different contextual environments for practice and then collect subjective and objective measurements. A simple test might include having randomly assigned persons meditate in a room with an object regarded as deepening practice or a control object. Alternatively, repeated measure designs could also be used in which the same person meditates in various environments and differences in neurophysiological correlate are measured. In both case, it might worth testing if some non-standard and yet unexplained non-local aspects of consciousness might be at play. Although it may appear as unlikely to some, we will not be able to observe such effects unless we specifically look for them using rigorous scientific methods.

In addition to the physical environment, the internal environment of the subject is also important. To date, meditative practices have been assayed either in long-term practitioners or relative novices. Many of the long term meditation practitioners hold rich worldviews, belief systems and/or theoretical approaches to the nature of belief as well as ethical guidelines that embrace and deeply inform their motivations for meditative practice and quite possibly the phenomenology of their experiences in meditation. It is possible that meditators undergo a worldview change that is not compatible with an established religious group.

However, the impact of these components of worldview and ethical systems have not been specifically assayed in the bulk of the clinical and neurophysiologic research to date. The novices assayed in meditation research to date hold a broad range of worldviews, often poorly informed by the spiritual and/or religious foundations of the meditative practices in which they are engaging. For better or worse, these meditative practices have been divorced from any teachings about the importance of ethical guidelines or philosophical understanding about the nature of self and relation of self to world and/or the sacred. The field of meditation studies is likely to benefit from including an appreciation for these components of the context within which meditation is engaged – both the worldview including ethical foundation as well as the underlying intentions bringing people to engage in the practices.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Measures

Possible Experiments/Topics to Study

Anomalous Body Experiences

Introduction

Awareness of the body, particularly awareness of breathing, is arguably a foundational practice across contemplative traditions. In many Buddhist traditions, the practice of anapanasati is used to cultivate a stable mind that is necessary for more advanced insight (wisdom) practices. In some traditions, practitioners intentionally control basic physiology, such as respiration rate and heart rate. Furthermore, there have been reports of extreme changes in physiology, such as increasing body temperature at will in freezing conditions.

Body-based meditation practices are some of the most commonly disseminated techniques in the West. A variety of research and clinical studies have focused on body-based outcomes following meditation training, such as changes in tactile and pain perception or visual and auditory perception. Studies that have examined biological indicators of sympathetic activation, such as cortisol and brain structure and function along the HPA axis, have generally found meditation-related reductions in sympathetic function and increases in parasympathetic function.

An important direction for future research is to better understand extreme changes in physiology that might be associated with meditation practice. These changes can take the form of improvement in function and cultivation of extraordinary capacity for physical performance. Although there are practical challenges for some forms of outcome measurement that have already been used extensively in meditation research (e.g., electro-encephalography, skin conductance), there are many options for monitoring physiological function that could be used to compare across groups. Non-standard measures to assess embodiment could also be developed to assess how meditators differ from controls in particular related to sexuality, sensuality, physicality, heat, cold, energy surging, and tingling and prickling of the skin.
Some attention practices focusing attention in specific areas of the body or on “energy” flowing through the body, which may involve kundalini, chakras, chi, subtle energy, moving meditation, sanitizing meditation. What are the physiological markers of these practices? In addition to collecting data on existing objective measures, would it be possible to use subjective measures to qualify and study these phenomena and how they are experienced by practitioners?

It will also be important to address negative body and mental side effects of meditation practice, particularly in vulnerable populations. For example, adverse side effects have been reported such as antisocial behavior, restlessness, reduction in emotional stability. Even long term meditators  have reported adverse effects. Further examples include, depersonalization, psychosis and even brain activity correlated with seizures. There have even been reports of patients having grand mal seizures during guided relaxation and particular forms of meditation practice. In our survey reports of fear and terrors were the least commonly reported type of experience, however this does not mean that such reports should be ignored.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

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Possible Experiments/Topics to Study

Extended Human Capacities

Introduction

Discussions of the relationship between meditation practice and advanced capacities of meditators can be traced in written form back to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, published roughly two thousand years ago. Other ancient traditions also link various non-ordinary states of awareness with advanced meditative practice. Some of the extraordinary claims of meditators such as the capacity to regulate body temperature have now been accepted by the scientific community. Other claims such as precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, and psychokinesis are still controversial although a growing body of literature suggests that such claims could be rooted in data.

To help advance the state of the art of meditation research it would be useful to more formally judge meditative practice, in terms of style, length, and depth of practice, against a variety of rigorous tests for extraordinary capabilities. Based on both the ancient lore and the little that is known today from a scientific perspective, one could predict that advanced meditators would outperform non-meditators on nearly all purported capabilities. Of particular interest would be experiments testing commonly reported experiences, such as feelings of exceptional spaciousness, or timelessness (more than 80% of survey respondents reported experiencing an altered sense of time during or just after meditating) or apparent mind-to-mind rapport. These states could provide the foundation for experiences of clairvoyance, precognition and telepathy. For such experiences there are already well-vetted experimental protocols available, so it would not be difficult to adapt existing methods to perform such studies.

Western scientists have tended to discount the possibility that non-local effects of consciousness are ontologically real, so they would assume that extraordinary experiences that seem to involve non-local effects of consciousness in fact involve mundane explanations and are not worth taking seriously. On the other hand, most contemplative traditions assume that these effects are genuine, but as Patanjali and others have cautioned, such phenomena are seductive and can become distractions, so one should not focus on them. While respecting the concerns of both camps, perhaps the time has arrived to move beyond earlier assumptions and take this topic to the next level of investigation.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Measures

Possible Experiments/Topics to Study