The Future of Meditation Research

The field of meditation research has experienced tremendous growth in the last decade, with published scientific articles exponentially increasing over the past 10 years. This rapid expansion of the field is due to the efforts of clinicians, theorists, and researchers, all of whom are interested in legitimizing meditation research by secularizing the various practices, translating them into clinically relevant interventions, and examining the effects of meditation on biological outcomes such as brain structure and function, immunity, and stress hormones. This trend is likely to continue given the positive results observed to date.

However, the vast majority of clinical research on meditation focuses on randomized controlled trials for therapeutic applications, while neuroscience research focuses on neural correlates of meditative states, and social science-oriented research focuses on cognitive, mental, and intrapersonal, aspects of meditation. By contrast, almost no research is being conducted on relational, embodied aspects of meditation. Some symposia are sprouting in an attempt to expand the current view (see for example this seminar at Harvard) but a concerted organized approach to educate the meditation field is needed.

The practice of meditation is believed to have existed before written history, and was typically situated within a set of religious beliefs and frameworks. Meditation began making inroads into popular Western culture in the 1960s as interest in Eastern philosophies spread. Concurrently, scientific research on meditation, its effects, and its applications began to be conducted in various clinical and academic domains. The growth of research into meditation and the development of new applications incorporating meditation are now growing exponentially. Today’s meditation researchers are investigating and translating the wisdom of the ancients with significant clinical findings in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology. Scientists, health and healing practitioners, educators, and laypeople are discovering the practical benefits of meditation in contemporary culture, such as increases in positive emotions and psychological stability, improved mental clarity, reductions in symptoms of illness, beneficial effects on immunity, brain function, hormonal functioning, and possibly aging, and greater appreciation of the fullness of the life experience.

In an excerpt from the Dalai Lama’s book Contemplative Mind, Hard Science, His Holiness speaks about the importance of research into meditation.

Until recently, scientists believed that after adolescence, the hardware of the human brain becomes relatively unchangeable. But new discoveries in neurobiology have uncovered a remarkable potential for changeability in the human brain even in adults as old as I am. At the Mind and Life Conference in Dharamsala in 2004, I learned of the growing subdiscipline of neuroscience dealing with this question, called “brain plasticity.” This phenomenon suggests to me that traits that were assumed to be fixed – such as personality, disposition, even moods – are not permanent and that mental exercises or changes in the environment can affect these traits. Already experiments have shown that experienced meditators have more activity in the left frontal lobe, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions such as happiness, joy, and contentment.

These findings imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain. [T]he Buddha himself argued that if one wishes to avoid certain types of results, one needs to change the conditions that give rise to them. So if one changes the conditions of one’s state of mind (which normally gives rise to particular habitual patterns of mental activity), one can change the traits of one’s consciousness and the resulting attitudes and emotions.”

In addition to the neuroscience of meditation, our research at IONS has identified meditation as one of the key practices for cultivating positive transformations in consciousness – the kinds that involve fundamental shifts in worldviews and ways of being that affect every aspect of daily life. In addition to regulating emotion, cultivating cognitive stability, and “training the brain,” meditation is viewed by many people as much more: a pathway toward self-transcendence, direct experience of an interconnected whole, awakening, liberation from suffering. We are also interested at IONS in investigating the ways that meditation may cultivate extended human capacities.

Under IONS leadership, a team of scientists conducted a series of five working meetings with 29 leading meditation researchers and scholars to discuss how to expand the constructs being investigated in meditation research. This group ultimately identified seven domains that could be fruitfully pursued by future researchers. Before moving forward to recommend these domains, we wanted to make sure that the experiences associated with them were prevalent enough among meditation practitioners to provide meaningful lines of inquiry. We conducted a survey of meditation practitioners that was a convenience sample, but did not reveal the content of the questions in recruitment materials to avoid biased sampling. Results were used to guide the recommendations presented in a scientific paper for ways to expand the science of meditation while maintaining rigorous standards of scientific inquiry.

Researchers involved in these meetings were Jan Chozen Bays, Willoughby Britton, Rael Cahn, Arnaud Delorme, Elissa Epel, Mica Estrada, Bruce Fetzer, Zoran Josipovic, Al Kaszniak, Edward Kelly, Jared Lindahl, Katherine MacLean, Paul Mills, Michael Murphy, Dean Radin, David Presti, Michael Sapiro, Marilyn Schlitz, Shauna Shapiro, Fred Travis, Fadel Zeidan, Cassandra Vieten, Helane Wahbeh.

The Future Directions in Meditation Research: Recommendations for Expanding the Field of Contemplative Science paper is now available on PLoS ONE.

Below is an excerpt from the result of the survey on 1120 individual participants who were or had been meditators in the past. Questions in the table below are ordered by the sum of the first two responses “This almost always happens” or “This has happened many times”. People predominantly reported feeling a sense of peace and tranquility, and a variety of sensations and mental experiences. Interestingly, even for the most dramatic experiences, “loss of awareness of where you are,” “experience unity with ultimate reality,” “ecstasy,” less than 20% of participants report never having such experiences.

Future of Meditation Research Paper

Under IONS leadership, a team of scientists conducted a series of five working meetings with 29 leading meditation researchers and scholars to discuss how to expand the constructs being investigated in meditation research. This group ultimately identified seven domains that could be fruitfully pursued by future researchers. Before moving forward to recommend these domains, we wanted to make sure that the experiences associated with them were prevalent enough among meditation practitioners to provide meaningful lines of inquiry. We conducted a survey of meditation practitioners that was a convenience sample, but did not reveal the content of the questions in recruitment materials to avoid biased sampling. Results were used to guide the recommendations presented in a scientific paper for ways to expand the science of meditation while maintaining rigorous standards of scientific inquiry.

Researchers involved in these meetings were Jan Chozen Bays, Willoughby Britton, Rael Cahn, Arnaud Delorme, Elissa Epel, Mica Estrada, Bruce Fetzer, Zoran Josipovic, Al Kaszniak, Edward Kelly, Jared Lindahl, Katherine MacLean, Paul Mills, Michael Murphy, Dean Radin, David Presti, Michael Sapiro, Marilyn Schlitz, Shauna Shapiro, Fred Travis, Fadel Zeidan, Cassandra Vieten, Helane Wahbeh.

The Future Directions in Meditation Research: Recommendations for Expanding the Field of Contemplative Science paper is now available on PLoS ONE.

Below is an excerpt from the result of the survey on 1120 individual participants who were or had been meditators in the past. Questions in the table below are ordered by the sum of the first two responses “This almost always happens” or “This has happened many times”. People predominantly reported feeling a sense of peace and tranquility, and a variety of sensations and mental experiences. Interestingly, even for the most dramatic experiences, “loss of awareness of where you are,” “experience unity with ultimate reality,” “ecstasy,” less than 20% of participants report never having such experiences.

Researchers Involved

The following people were involved in the Future of Meditation Research gatherings, paper, and online course.

Jan Chozen Bays, MD

Serves as co-abbot of Great Vow Zen Monastery, a residential center for intensive Zen training in Clatskanie, Oregon. She is also a published author.

Willoughby Britton, PhD

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Assistant Professor of Behavioral & Social Science, Brown University Alpert Medical School. “The Varieties of Meditation Experience.”

Rael Cahn, MD, PhD

University of California, San Diego. “Neural Correlates of Widening the Experience of Self.”

Mark Coleman

Meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and author of Awake in the Wild.

Arnaud DeLorme, PhD

Scientist, Institute of Noetic Sciences; CNRS principal investigator in Toulouse, France; Faculty Project Scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “Meditation and Unexplained Phenomena: Theory and Experiments.”

Elissa Epel, PhD

Associate Professor in Residence, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine; Director, AME Laboratory. “Meditation, Emotion Regulation, and Cellular Aging.”

Mica Estrada, PhD

Research Faculty at California State University, San Marcos. She co-leads a National Institutes of Health longitudinal, theory-driven evaluation minority science training programs. “Community and Consciousness.”

Zoran Josipovic, PhD

Assistant Adjunct Professor in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Director/Principal Investigator, Contemplative Science Lab, Department of Psychology, New York University; Founding Director, Nonduality Institute. “Neuroscience of Nonduality.”

Al Kaszniak, PhD

Head, Department of Psychology and Professor, Psychology, Neurology, and Psychiatry, University of Arizona, Tucson; Director, Neuropsychology, Emotion, and Memory Lab. “Transformation in Long-Term Meditation.”

Edward Kelly, PhD

Professor of Research, Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia School of Medicine. “Irreducible Mind.”

Jared Lindahl, PhD

Professor of Religious Studies, Warren Wilson College. “Stages of Meditation Practice and Humanistic Research Methodology.”

Katherine MacLean, PhD

Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Meditation, Happiness and Death of Self-Identity.”

Paul Mills, PhD

Professor in Residence, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego. “Who Meditates and Why?”

Michael Murphy

Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of the Esalen Institute, and directs the Institute’s think tank operations through its Center for Theory & Research (CTR). He is also the author of The Future of the Body, The Life We Are Given, Golf in the Kingdom, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, Jacob Atabet, and An End to Ordinary History.

Dean Radin, PhD

Chief Scientist, Institute of Noetic Sciences, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. “Science of the Siddhis: Advanced Meditation and Extraordinary Human Capacities.”

David Presti, PhD

Senior Lecturer of Neurobiology, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Program in Cognitive Science, University of California, Berkeley. “Deepening the Dialogue between Contemplative Traditions and Science: Scientific Revolution and the Mind-Matter Relation.”

Michael Sapiro, PsyD

Psychologist and meditation teacher; director of Maitri House Yoga; and fellow with IONS.

Marilyn Schlitz, PhD

Social anthropologist, researcher, writer, trainer, educator, and public speaker. She is a Senior Fellow and Past President at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and Senior Scientist at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute.

Shauna Shapiro, PhD

Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University and an internationally recognized expert in mindfulness. “Interrelatedness, Embodiment, and Intimacy.”

Fred Travis, PhD

Chair of the Department of Maharishi Vedic Science; Director, Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition; Dean of the Graduate School, Maharishi University of Management. “Methods and Measures: A Proposed Taxonomy of Meditation Practices.”

Fadel Zeidan, PhD

Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Wake Forest University. “Neuroscience of Meditation and Pain: Is Meditation a Placebo?”

Cassandra Vieten, PhD

Licensed clinical psychologist, President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Scientist at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, and Faculty Member/Psychologist at California Pacific Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry.

Future of Meditation Research Resources

Mystical, Transcendent, and Transformative Experiences

While approximately 30-50% of Americans report having had what they would consider a mystical or transcendent experience, one reason why these experiences have not been examined extensively 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).

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). 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. 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.

Potential Research Questions in this Domain:

  • What is the subjective nature and salience of mystical and transcendent experiences?
  • How can we develop improved methods and measures for investigating them?
  • What are the effects of these experiences on health, psychological and prosocial outcomes?
  • What are psychophysiological moderators and mechanisms of such experiences?
  • What are acute and long-term physiological correlates of such experiences?

For example, prospective studies of novice meditators could include a measure of mystical or transcendent experiences, examine the predictive value of the occurrence or type of such experiences on outcomes of interest, explore them as potential mechanisms of other psychological or physical changes, or correlate the occurrence and intensity of such experiences with mood data from experience sampling or biomarkers.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Berman, A. E., & Stevens, L. (2015). EEG manifestations of nondual experiences in meditators. Consciousness and Cognition, 31, 1-11.doi:10.1016/j.concog.2014.10.002.

Cooney, J. W., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (2003). Neurological disorders and the structure of human consciousness. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 7(4):161-165. PMID:12691764.

Dahl, C. J., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 19(9), 515-523. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.001.

Davis, J. H., & Vago, D. R. (2013). Can enlightenment be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior? No, and (a qualified) Yes. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 870. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00870.

Feuerstein, G. (2002). The yoga tradition: Its history, literature, philosophy and practice.Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press.

Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., et al. (2011). Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects. Psychopharmacology, Dec;218(4):649-65.doi:10.1007/s00213-011-2358-5.

Griffiths, R., Johnson, M. et al. (2017). Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Jan;32(1):49-69. doi:10.1177/0269881117731279. Epub 2017 Oct 11.

Hood Jr, R. W., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. New York, NY:Guilford Press.

Josipovic, Z. (2013). Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307(1). doi:10.1111/nyas.12261.

Josipovic, Z. (2013). Freedom of the mind. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00538.

Levin, J. & Steele, L. (2005). The transcendent experience: conceptual, theoretical, and epidemiologic perspectives. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 1(2):89-101.

MacLean, K. A., Leoutsakos, J. M. S., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2012). Factor analysis of the mystical experience questionnaire: A study of experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 51(4):721-737. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01685.x.

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2011). Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness.Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(11):1453-1461. doi:10.1177/0269881111420188.

Miller, W. R. (2004). The phenomenon of quantum change. Journal of Clinical Psychology.60(5):453-460. doi:10.1002/jclp.20000.

Mills, P. J., Peterson, C. T., Pung, M. A., Patel, S., Weiss, L., Wilson, K. L., … & Chopra, D. (2018). Change in Sense of Nondual Awareness and Spiritual Awakening in Response to a Multidimensional Well-Being Program. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 24(4), 343-351. doi: 10.1089/acm.2017.0160. Epub 2017 Dec 7.

Rabjam, L. (2001). The precious treasury of the basic space of phenomena. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing.

Schoenberg, P. L., Ruf, A., Churchill, J., Brown, D. P., & Brewer, J.A. (2018). Mapping complex mind states: EEG neural substrates of meditative unified compassionate awareness.Consciousness and Cognition, 57, 41-53. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2017.11.003. Epub 2017 Nov 21.

Schoenberg, P. L., & Barendregt, H. P. (2016). Mindful disintegration and the decomposition of self in healthy populations: Conception and preliminary study. Psychological Studies. 61(4), 307-320. doi:10.1007/s12646-016-0374-6.

Sharma, C. (2000). A critical survey of Indian philosophy. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Stace, W. T. (1960). Mysticism and Philosophy. London, England: MacMillan.

Travis, F. (2014). Transcendental experiences during meditation practice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1307(1), 1-8. doi:10.1111/nyas.12316. Epub 2013 Dec 23.

Travis, F., Tecce, J., Arenander, A., & Wallace, R. K. (2002). Patterns of EEG coherence, power, and contingent negative variation characterize the integration of transcendental and waking states. Biological Psychology. 61(3), 293-319.

Vago, D. R., & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, and Self Transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6, 1-30. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296

Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood Jr, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of General Psychology. 21(2), 143.

Yamane, D., & Polzer, M. (1994). Ways of seeing ecstasy in modern society: Experiential-expressive and cultural-linguistic views. Sociology of Religion. 55(1):1-25.

Social and Relational Aspects of Meditation

Meditation has traditionally been taught in a relational manner and 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. 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.

Practitioners have reported strong psychophysiological responses when they are in the presence of a spiritual teacher, a phenomenon thought to reflect a transmission of “spiritual energy” from teacher to student. Such transmissions are said to be experienced at a distance, or by listening to a recording or by simply looking at a picture of the spiritual teacher. 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.

Potential Research Questions in this Domain:

  • What are the psychophysiological correlates of the experience of spiritual transmission on the part of the transmitter and the recipient?
  • To what extent is meditation is solely an individual experience and to what extent can it be a shared interpersonal experience?
  • 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)?
  • 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?

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Augustinova, M., & Ferrand, L. (2012). The influence of mere social presence on Stroop interference: New evidence from the semantically-based Stroop task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48(5):1213-6.

Bond, C. F., & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: a meta-analysis of 241 studies.Psychological Bulletin. 94(2):265.

Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004) Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annu Rev Psychol. 55:591-621.

Condon, P., Dunne, J., & Wilson-Mendenhall, C. (2018). Wisdom and compassion: A new perspective on the science of relationships. Journal of Moral Education, 1-11.doi:10.1080/03057240.2018.1439828.

Condon, P. (2017). Mindfulness, compassion, and prosocial behaviour. In J. C. Karremans & E. K. Papies (Eds.), Mindfulness in social psychology (pp. 124-138). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Gale, J. (2009). Meditation and relational connectedness. In Spiritual Resources In Family Therapy (pp. 247-266). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Gambrel, L. E., & Keeling, M. L. (2010). Relational aspects of mindfulness: Implications for the practice of marriage and family therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy. 32(4), 412-426. doi:10.1007/s10591-010-9129-z.

Guerin B. (2010). Social facilitation. In The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (eds I. B. Weiner and W. E. Craighead). doi:10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0890.

Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M, & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5):720-724. doi:10.1037/a0013237.

Josipovic, Z., (2016). Love and compassion meditation: a nondual perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1373(1) 65-71.

Kemeny, M. E., Foltz, C, Cavanagh, J. F., Cullen, M., Giese-Davis, J., Jennings, P., et al. (2012) Contemplative/emotion training reduces negative emotional behavior and promotes prosocial responses. Emotion, 12(2):338.

Lim, D., Condon, P., & DeSteno, D. (2015) Mindfulness and compassion: an examination of mechanism and scalability. PloS One, 10(2):e0118221.

Mantzios, M., & Giannou, K. (2014) Group vs. single mindfulness meditation: exploring avoidance, impulsivity, and weight management in two separate mindfulness meditation settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 6(2):173-91.

Rosenberg, E. L., Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Aichele, S. R., Jacobs, T. L., Bridwell, D. A., et al. (2015) Intensive meditation training influences emotional responses to suffering.Emotion,15(6):775.

Zeng, X., Chiu, C. P., Wang, R., Oei, T. P., & Leung, F. Y. (2015) The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: a meta-analytic review. Frontiers in Psychology. 03 November 2015. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693.

Extraordinary Physical and Perceptual Phenomena

Awareness of the body is a foundational practice across many contemplative traditions. Studies have been conducted on physiological correlates of meditation generally finding meditation-related reductions in sympathetic function and increases in parasympathetic function. These physical phenomena associated with meditation have just barely been addressed by the scientific community, and provide fertile ground for future studies. These studies will not only help us learn more about the correlates and outcomes of meditation, but also more about the connection between mind and body, the connection between conscious and nonconscious functions, and potentially more about what has come to be known as the “biofield,” and its role in our well-being.

The increasing evidence that humans can become aware of what were previously purely non-conscious processes has profound implications, and provides a large and potentially valuable sphere of scientific inquiry. Once again, these phenomena certainly provide challenges in terms of measurement and methodology, but so do other areas of inquiry that require ingenuity to operationalize. These and other areas of body sensations and perceptual phenomena that occur naturally in meditation provide a rich open field for new research. These lines of inquiry not only provide an opportunity to learn more about the effects of meditation, but also to learn more about mind-body interactions in the context of the special training that meditation practices provide.

Potential Research Questions in this Domain:

  • What qualitative measures can help us better understand the nature of these experiences?
  • What quantitative measures could be developed to assess subjective experiences of embodiment/physicality, heat, cold, tingling and prickling of the skin, “energy” surges, etc?
  • How might we objectively measure physiological correlates of subjective physical, perceptual, or energy experiences?
  • Do meditative activities result in functional physical improvements (e.g. strength, balance) or extraordinary capacities for physical performance?
  • How does embodied presence due to meditation practices influence human interactions in person, or with virtual or augmented reality?
  • What are ways to measure the visceral sense of greater embodiment, or feeling comfortable, awake, and aware in one’s body?
  • How is interoceptive awareness (awareness of signals from inside the body) affected by meditation training or practice, and is it associated with positive outcomes?

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Bair, P., & Bair, S. (2010). Living From The Heart. Tucson, AZ: Living Heart Media.

Benson, H., Lehmann, J. W., Malhotra, M. S., Goldman, R. F., Hopkins, J., & Epstein, M. D. (1982). Body temperature changes during the practice of g Tum-mo yoga. Nature.295(5846):234-236.

Bornemann, B., Herbert, B. M., Mehling, W. E., & Singer, T. (2014). Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training. Frontiers in Psychology. 06 January 2015. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01504.

Cahn, B. R., Delorme, A., & Polich, J. (2012). Event-related delta, theta, alpha and gamma correlates to auditory oddball processing during Vipassana meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 8(1):100-11.

Carter, O., Presti, D., Callistemon, C., Ungerer, Y., Liu, G., & Pettigrew, J. (2005). Meditation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks. Current Biology.  15(11):R412-R3.

Daubenmier, J., Sze, J., Kerr, C. E., Kemeny, M. E., & Mehling, W. (2013). Follow your breath: respiratory interoceptive accuracy in experienced meditators. Psychophysiology. 50(8):777-89.

Farb, N., Daubenmier, J., Price, C. J., Gard, T., Kerr, C., & Dunn, B. D., et al. (2015). Interoception, contemplative practice, and health. Frontiers in Psychology. 09 June 2015. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763.

Hart, W. (2011). The art of living: Vipassana meditation: As taught by SN Goenka. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Heeter, C. (1992). Being there: The subjective experience of presence. Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments. 1(2):262-71.

Jain, S., Hammerschlag, R., Mills, P., Cohen, L., Krieger, R., Vieten, C., et al. (2015). Clinical studies of biofield therapies: Summary, methodological challenges, and recommendations.Global Advances in Health and Medicine. 4(Suppl):58.

Kerr, C. E., Jones, S. R., Wan, Q., Pritchett, D. L., Wasserman, R. H., Wexler, A., et al. (2011). Effects of mindfulness meditation training on anticipatory alpha modulation in primary somatosensory cortex. Brain Research Bulletin. 85(3):96-103.

Khalsa, S. S., Rudrauf, D., Damasio, A. R., Davidson, R. J., Lutz, A., Tranel, D. (2008). Interoceptive awareness in experienced meditators. Psychophysiology. 45(4):671-7.

Khoury, B., Knäuper, B., Pagnini, F., Trent, N., Chiesa, A., & Carrière, K. (2017). Embodied mindfulness. Mindfulness. 8(5), 1160-1171.

Kozhevnikov, M., Elliott, J., Shephard, J., & Gramann, K. (2013). Neurocognitive and somatic components of temperature increases during g-Tummo meditation: legend and reality. PloS One. 8(3):e58244.

Lindahl, J. R., Kaplan, C. T., Winget, E. M., & Britton, W. B. (2013). A phenomenology of meditation-induced light experiences: traditional Buddhist and neurobiological perspectives.Frontiers in Psychology. 4(973). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00973.

MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., et al. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. Psychological Science. 21(6):829-39.

Melloni, M., Sedeño, L., Couto, B., Reynoso, M., Gelormini, C., Favaloro, R., et al. (2013). Preliminary evidence about the effects of meditation on interoceptive sensitivity and social cognition. Behavioral and Brain Functions. 9(1):47.

Parker, S. C., Nelson, B. W., Epel, E. S., & Siegel, D. J. (2015). The science of presence.Handbook of mindfulness: theory, research, and practice, 225.

Sze, J. A., Gyurak, A., Yuan, J. W., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). Coherence between emotional experience and physiology: does body awareness training have an impact? Emotion. 10(6):803.

Wu, S., & Lo, P. (2008). Inward-attention meditation increases parasympathetic activity: a study based on heart rate variability. Biomedical Research. 29(5):245-50.

Zeidan, F., Gordon, N. S., Merchant, J., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). The effects of brief mindfulness meditation training on experimentally induced pain. The Journal of Pain. 11(3):199-209.

Zeidan, F., Grant, J., Brown, C., McHaffie, J., & Coghill, R. (2012) Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters. 520(2):165-73.

Extraordinary Spatial/Temporal Phenomena

Contemplative practitioners anecdotally report experiencing time and space differently during or as a result of meditation practice. These subjective experiences of alterations in space/time could be illusory. In addition, those who meditate may have worldviews that increase their subjective perceptions of these phenomena. Regardless, these experiences appear to be prevalent, frequent, and important to people and, therefore, provide a potentially useful field of scientific inquiry. If any aspects of them prove to be veridical, they provide an interesting pathway toward better understanding the nature of space and time, and human potential.

Potential Topics in this Area of Research:

  • Using qualitative research to assess more fully the subjective descriptive nature of meditators’ altered perceptions of time, space, or synchronicities in their lives.
  • Using experience sampling, daily assessments, or questionnaires to evaluate the frequency and salience of such experiences.
    Exploring objective physiological correlates of the subjective experience of timelessness or connections with others at a distance,or the sense of spaciousness or timelessness.
  • Assessing the effects of these experiences on identity, decision-making, mood regulation, or other clinical outcomes developing methods for reliable induction of these experiences under controlled conditions.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Berkovich-Ohana, A., Dor-Ziderman, Y., Glicksohn, J., & Goldstein, A. (2013). Alterations in the sense of time, space, and body in the mindfulness-trained brain: a neurophenomenologically-guided MEG study. Frontiers in Psychology. 4(912). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00912.

Barušs, I., & Mossbridge, J. (2017). Transcendent mind: Rethinking the science of consciousness. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Radin, D. I., Vieten, C., Michel, L., & Delorme, A. (2011). Electrocortical activity prior to unpredictable stimuli in meditators and nonmeditators. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. 7(5):286-99.

Wittmann, M., Otten, S., Schötz, E., Sarikaya, A., Lehnen, H., Jo, H.G., Kohls, N., Schmidt, S., & Meissner, K. (2015). Subjective expansion of extended time-spans in experienced meditators. Frontiers in Psychology. 5, p.1586. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01586.

Extended Perception

Extended perception refers to perceptions people may have naturally or develop over the lifespan that go beyond traditionally understood notions of how information can be perceived. These phenomena include physical manifestations that seem to have no physical cause (for example, objects moving by a non-physical force, physical objects appearing when they had not been there before, objects falling over, a light going out, mind-matter interactions, or psychokinesis). This can also include sensing a connection with non-physical entities (defined as non-physical entities in your awareness, vision, or hearing, such as a God presence, higher powers, divine beings or angels, demons or negative figures, guides, or other visitors).

These experiences could point to aspects of human potential and reality that challenge prevailing paradigms. Western scientists may hesitate to entertain the possibility that one possible explanation for these perceptions of non-local aspects of consciousness are that they are ontologically real. While respecting the concerns of both perspectives, it is possible that the time has arrived to cautiously move beyond earlier assumptions and investigations to include some of these capacities.

Potential Topics in this Area of Research:

  • Lucid dreaming and lucid non-dream sleep.
  • Heightened perceptual speed and sensitivity.
  • Precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, and mind-matter interactions.
  • Correlating different types, frequency, and length of meditation practice with a variety of rigorous tests for extraordinary capabilities.
  • Testing for extended human capacities such as precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, or mind-matter interactions under controlled conditions during or just following meditation.
  • Utilizing implicit measures (i.e. those that do not require conscious choice but examine physiological or reaction-time measures) to investigate extended human capacities during or related to meditation practice; including extended human capacities variables or questionnaire items in more traditional studies of meditation, to assess them as predictors, outcomes, or mediators.
  • Studying people engaging in long-term or high-intensity meditation practices who have been reported to exhibit exceptional capacities, virtues, states of consciousness, and postconventional stages of development.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Braud, W. (2010). Patanjali Yoga Sutras and parapsychological research: Exploring matches and mismatches. Yoga and Parapsychology: Empirical Research and Theoretical Studies. 241-60.

Cardeña, E. (2018). The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: A review.American Psychologist. 73(5), 663-677.

Cardeña, E. (2015). The unbearable fear of psi: on scientific suppression in the 21st century.Journal of Scientific Exploration. 29(4), 601-620.

Cardeña, E., Palmer, J., & Marcusson-Clavertz, D. (Eds.). (2015). Parapsychology: A handbook for the 21st century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Kelly, E. F., & Kelly, E. W. (2007). Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kelly, E. F., Crabtree, A., & Marshall, P. (2015). Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield.

Presti, D. E. (2018). Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Radin, D. (2015). Meditation and the Nonlocal Mind. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. 11(2):82-4.

Radin, D. (2013). Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities. New York, NY: Deepak Chopra Books.

Radin, D., Michel, L., Galdamez, K., Wendland, P., Rickenbach, R., & Delorme, A. (2012). Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern: Six experiments. Physics Essays. 25(2).

Radin, D., & Patterson, R. (2007). Exploratory study: The random number generator and group meditation. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 21(2):295-317.

Radin, D., Vieten, C., Michel, L., & Delorme, A. (2011). Electrocortical activity prior to unpredictable stimuli in meditators and nonmeditators. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. 7(5):286-99.

Roney-Dougal, S., Ryan, A., & Luke, D. (2013). The relationship between local geomagnetic activity, meditation and psi. Part I: Literature review and theoretical model. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. 77(2):72-88.

Roney-Dougal, S., Solfvin, J., & Fox, J. (2008). An exploration of degree of meditation attainment in relation to psychic awareness with Tibetan Buddhists. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 22(2):161-78.

Roney-Dougal, S. M., & Solfvin, J. (2011). Exploring the Relationship between Tibetan Meditation Attainment and Precognition. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 25(1).

Schwartz, S. A. (2005). The Blind Protocol and Its Place in Consciousness Research. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. 1(4):284-289

Difficult Experiences in Meditation

Meditation is usually considered a low risk intervention and adverse events are relatively rare. While reports of fear and terrors were the least commonly reported type of experience among respondents in our survey, this does not mean that such reports should be ignored; about a ⅓ of our participants reported feeling disturbing feelings of fear, dread, or terror during or as a result of their meditation practice. A small but growing body of research on adverse effects from meditation practice exists, and there is opportunity to investigate this domain further. Among researchers who are enthusiastic about the benefits of meditation being discovered in contemplative science, there may be hesitance to examine adverse events or negative side effects of meditation, for fear that this will engender fear, restrict research, or lessen enthusiasm for the practice. Most studies do not include any items asking about difficult states or struggles with meditation practice. However, it is possible that difficult and distressing experiences may be involved in one of the major challenges to clinical research on meditation: adherence.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Castillo, R. J. (1990). Depersonalization and Meditation. Psychiatry. 53(2):158-68.

French, A. P., Schmid, A. C., & Ingalls, E. (1975). Transcendental meditation, altered reality testing, and behavioral change: a case report. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 161(1):55-8.

Jaseja, H. (2010). Potential role of self-induced EEG fast oscillations in predisposition to seizures in meditators. Epilepsy & Behavior. 17(1):124-5.

Kuijpers, H. J., Van der Heijden, F., Tuinier, S., & Verhoeven, W. (2007). Meditation-induced psychosis. Psychopathology. 40(6):461-4.

Lansky, E. P., & Louis, E. K. S. (2006). Transcendental meditation: A double-edged sword in epilepsy? Epilepsy & Behavior. 9(3):394-400.

Lindahl, J. R. (2017). Somatic Energies and Emotional Traumas: A Qualitative Study of Practice-Related Challenges Reported by Vajrayāna Buddhists. Religions, 8(8), 153.

Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. E., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K., & Britton, W. B. (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PloS One, 12(5):e0176239.

Otis, L. S. (1984). Adverse effects of transcendental meditation. Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, 201-8.

Rocha, T. (2014). The dark knight of the soul. The Atlantic, 25(6).

Shapiro, D. H. (1992). Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 39(1-4):62-7.

Sherrill, H. N., Sherrill, J., & Cáceda, R. (2017). Psychotic mania induced by diffuse meditation. Psychiatry Research, 258. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2016.12.035.

Walsh, R., & Roche, L. (1979). Precipitation of acute psychotic episodes by intensive meditation in individuals with a history of schizophrenia. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 136(8):1085-6. doi:10.1176/ajp.136.8.1085.


The role of the environmental context in which meditation practice occurs represents another essentially wide-open field for future researchers. The physical environment, and use of objects, icons, rituals and sacred places have traditionally been thought to enhance meditation practice. There are a potpourri of perceptual cues (incense, candles, images, music, bells, wearing special clothing, use of sacred foods, or fasting or avoiding certain foods) that are routine parts of contemplative traditions and have yet to be investigated scientifically. In some cases, these contextual elements are thought to help “carry” a person into deeper meditative practice, and enhance its benefits.

Simple behavioral pairing could partially explain why a building, site, object, would be positively related to the ability to meditate or outcomes of meditation practice. Also possible is that subtle physical or environmental shifts occur in buildings, rooms, places, or objects as a result of long periods of meditation by many people. Similarly, environments, objects, clothing/jewelry, or other contextual elements may in fact hold some energy or influence that we simply do not yet understand, that go beyond simple cues or conventional explanations.

In addition, the cultural context, intentions, purpose, and values held by the meditator’s tradition or community (and within the practitioner) likely impact meditative experiences and outcomes. Many long term meditation practitioners hold rich worldviews, belief systems and ethical guidelines that inform their motivations for meditative practice and quite possibly the phenomenology of their experiences in meditation.

Potential Topics in this Area of Research

  • The impact of worldview and ethical systems components on meditation.
  • Random assignment of participants to different contextual environments for practice and then collect subjective and objective measurements (one test might include having persons meditate in a room with an object randomly selected as one that is regarded to deepen practice versus a control object).
  • Repeated measures designs could also be used in which the same person meditates in various environments, and differences in neurophysiological correlates are measured.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Dorjee, D. (2016). Defining contemplative science: The metacognitive self-regulatory capacity of the mind, context of meditation practice and modes of existential awareness.Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1788.

Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness‐based interventions in context: past, present, and future.Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2):224.

Shapiro, Jr, D. H. (1994). Examining the content and context of meditation: A challenge for psychology in the areas of stress management, psychotherapy, and religion/values.  Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 34(4), 101-135.

Vago, D. R., & Zeidan, F. (2016). The brain on silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness, and states of mental tranquility. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1373(1), 96-113. doi:10.1111/nyas.13171

Psychological Development

One of the most dramatic findings of developmental neuropsychology is that, contrary to previous beliefs, development can continue throughout much of adulthood. Many models of advanced or postconventional stages of adult psychological development exist and preliminary maps have been offered over the centuries by contemplatives. Research suggests that for moral, cognitive, and many other capacities such as wisdom and self-transcendence, development can continue well into the elder years. However, there have been very few studies of the effects of meditation on psychological development, even though accelerating such development may be one of the most important contributions the practice of meditation can make, and one of our contemporary world’s greatest needs.

Theoretical and Empirical Literature

Aldwin, C. M., & Igarashi, H. (2015). Successful, optimal, and resilient aging: A psychosocial perspective. In P. A. Lichtenberg, B. T. Mast, B. D. Carpenter, & J. Loebach Wetherell (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology. APA handbook of clinical geropsychology, Vol. 1. History and status of the field and perspectives on aging (pp. 331-359). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Cloninger, C. R. (2004). Feeling Good: The Science of Well-being. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cook-Greuter, S. R. (1999). Postautonomous ego development: A study of its nature and measurement. (habits of mind, transpersonal psychology, Worldview). Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 60(6-B), 3000.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (2014). The Role of Emotions in the Development of Wisdom. In Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education. Springer, Dordrecht.

Demick, J., & Andreoletti, C. (2003). Handbook of Adult Development. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Kegan, R. (1995). In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Killen, M., & Smetana, J. (2005). Handbook of Moral Development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kohlberg, L. (2010). The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment.Moral Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. 40-7.

Schoenberg, P. L. A., & Vago, D. R. (in press). Mapping Meditative States and Stages with Electrophysiology: Concepts, Classifications, and Methods: EEG correlates of mindfulness-based practices, encompassing FA, OM, and non-dual concepts. Current Opinions in Psychology.

Vaillant, G. E. (2002). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walsh, R. (2015). What is wisdom? Cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary syntheses. Review of General Psychology. 19(3):278.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

General Resources

The Science of Meditation article – A layperson’s guide to the state of the meditation research field, provided by the science team at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (

IONS Meditation Resources, key selections of consciousness-related media, including articles, recorded talks, interviews, and guided meditations.

Brown, K. W., Creswell, J. D., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of mindfulness: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. (2017). The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body.Penguin UK.

Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Lutz, A., Jha, A. P., Dunne, J. D., & Saron, C. D. (2015). Investigating the phenomenological matrix of mindfulness-related practices from a neurocognitive perspective. American Psychologist. 70(7), 632.

Shapiro, J. & Walsh, R. (2017). Meditation: Classic and contemporary perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Shapiro, S. L., & Carlson, L. E. (2017). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sheldrake, R. (2018). Science and spiritual practices: Reconnecting through direct experience. London: Coronet.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Siegel, D. J. (2018). Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence A Complete Guide to the Groundbreaking Wheel of Awareness Meditation Practice. New York, NY: TarcherPerigee.

Thompson, E. (2014). Waking, dreaming, being: Self and consciousness in neuroscience, meditation, and philosophy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and Western psychology: a mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist. 61(3):227.

Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.Perspectives on Psychological Science. 13(1), 36-61.

Walsh, R. (2014). The World’s Great Wisdom: Timeless Teachings from Religions and Philosophies. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Future of Meditation Research (FOMR) Online Course

In this online course, we present a series of lectures by experts in the field of meditation research suggesting potentially fruitful areas for expanding the science of meditation.

Designed for new and existing meditation researchers, this course shares theories and hypotheses, measures and protocols, and suggestions for new or understudied lines of inquiry.

This self-study course consists of 14 chapters and six interviews (for a total of 10 hours of video), each including a supplemental reading list for the topic, and an optional quiz. A certificate of completion is available for those who complete the quizzes with passing marks.

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