Meditation and brain health, the latest research urges that we prioritize dementia prevention.
The need to prevent dementia highlighted in latest research
The latest large scale research into dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke has confirmed that one in two women and one in three men will develop at least one of these diseases during their lifetime. The research offers insight into the long term health of people in their 40s. But in addition to highlighting the stark statistical probability of succumbing to neurodegeneration, the study suggests that delaying the onset of the these illness for 1 – 3 years may reduce the risk of avoiding them altogether by 20% to 50%.
It is widely recognised that a number of lifestyle factors can increase the probability of avoiding dementia. Stopping smoking, adopting a healthy diet and taking regular exercise have long been associated with improved physical and mental health. Recent scientific studies have also given the strongest indications yet that some forms of meditation might be directly reducing the rate at which a brain ages, enabling us to maintain full brain (cognitive) function for longer. We know that cognitive decline begins in our late 20s and early 30s. It will normally be visible by the age of 45. If our cognitive ability continues to shrink through middle age it can lead to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and eventually even dementia.
“one study revealed that at the age of 50, regular meditators had brains several years younger than non-meditators”
Research has shown that meditation can lead to a slowing of brain ageing and an improvement to certain brain functions such as memory and attention. Although the understanding of how meditation is able to help create new brain structure is still at a preliminary stage. There is compelling evidence that some forms of meditation are related to maintaining, and in some respects improving our brain health. Although brain training (including meditation) can reduces the risk of developing dementia it is just one of a number of things we can do to live longer healthier lives. For a summary of the current advice on taking care of your brain visit the Brain Renewal website.
Are meditators contributing to confusion and uncertain about meditation in contemporary society?
A significant amount of media coverage is dedicated to the benefits (or not) of working with mind. Frequently scientific studies are cited to support a particular position or opinions about aspects of meditation. However there is little public engagement with the science of meditation more generally. The last 30 years has seen an increasing interest in both traditional and contemporary forms of meditation and mindfulness. As someone who has received great benefits from ‘practice’, I welcome wider discussion on the subject. Regrettably the voices of practitioners are rarely heard in the empirical debate, even though they hold a significant body of knowledge not necessarily accessible to the scientists. It is true that many meditation scientists are in fact practitioners, I am a case in point. But I’m not sure that I can be a representative for, or of the wider meditation community with regards to my own research.
In every instance there are significant differences in the roles of subjective observer (practitioner) and objective observer (scientist). Within contemporary experimental psychology the quantitative, objective approach is generally kept distant from issues connected to actual real world experience. This makes the input of a large and influential meditation community essential to a balanced understanding of meditation. For example for a considerable time nondual forms of meditation were not being recognized by most researchers, despite the fact that duality is a central pillar of Buddhist teaching and a context for all related practices.
Traditionally scientific research is evaluated by other scientists through a peer review system. Influential research can remain within the maze of academic publications and scientific reviews for years. If a paper is regarded as being of particular interest it can be brought into the mainstream by journalists or other commentators. But it is also possible for research to influence public policy without a conversation with the wider community. In general terms I think people should be free to develop their own ideas about meditation. But it’s probably not useful for scientists to be evaluating what a practice is, without a clear understanding of how it is undertaken and what the meditator is doing with their mind. Published meditation and mindfulness studies can now be measured in tens of thousands (just check on Google Scholar). But the contribution of many of these papers is uncertain. Most studies report some ‘effect’ from a training in meditation, but when a range of studies are compared (meta reviewed), patterns are less than clear. In fact the methodological and theoretical basis of many meditation studies does not stand up to close scientific scrutiny. The relationship between traditional meditation and contemporary mindfulness practices is also somewhat confused.
As a Buddhist meditator (rather than a dharma scholar) my training has largely been based on challenging self rather than other. However as a meditation scientist a critical perspective is essential to both understand and engage with meditation studies. Many practitioners may feel that the scientific community are in a good position to inform society about the value of meditation and mindfulness. It is perhaps this view that has allowed meditation to be a partner in an appropriation process, both directly and by association. From my current vantage point, as a long standing meditator and post grad researcher, I can see a need for greater interaction between the meditation and scientific communities.
Meditation is by its very nature an experiential practice, what happens to the meditator is of crucial importance in the process. And yet meditation research has been dominated by ‘objective’ scientific measurement. Broad acceptance of the need to better understand the experience of the meditator (e.g. the phenomenological matrix) has only been around for a few years. There are almost no authoritative surveys focusing specifically on either meditators, meditation practice or the meditation communities at large. Even in strictly secular forms of meditation such as MBIs there is a need for a wider discussion about the processes involved and the relationship with traditional approaches. Mindfulness has existed for centuries in Buddhist practices but the terminology is evolving into new areas in a contemporary setting. Some teachers of traditional meditation now draw a distinction between MBIs as ‘bare attention’ and Buddhist understandings of mindfulness. Does this mean we now need to distinguish between different forms of mindfulness? Recent investigations has suggested that mindfulness research can be based on one of dozens of operational definitions. This confusion has in part been caused because the field of contemplative science has little input from contemplatives.
There are I think, three things that could be done immediately.
If as a meditator you encounter unclear information about meditation in your sphere of activity you may wish to attempt to discuss it. A polite engagement is likely to be enriching even if your original thoughts prove to be wrong.
Those individuals and organisation regarded as stakeholders in meditation (traditional and secular), should offer greater public comment regarding scientific matters linked to meditation.
Finally a forum should be created where meditators and meditation scientists can come together to discuss the science of meditation. Not a limited contact between senior Buddhist figures and leading neuroscientist, but a dialogue in every community where meditators and scientists share this common interest.
Many traditional practitioners are taught not accept teachings just because they come from someone who seems knowledgeable, like a monk for example. Rather to test the teachings for themselves. Given the known and demonstrated problems in the research of meditation perhaps the same logic should be applied to statements from scientists?
The Science of Meditation blog explores recent research in the contemplative sciences
Although it might appear that meditation holds a place in mainstream society, its precise role and the benefits it can bring are very much a subject of academic debate. Western science, particularly psychology, is struggling to establish a coherent definition of meditation which can be used to create a theoretical framework within which meditation might be fully understood. In plain speaking meditation is not always defined reliably, what its components are and how it works is subject to a degree of interpretation. One of the strengths of experimental psychology is replication, when the results of an experiment are repeated by different scientists at different times then the results tend to be viewed more favorably. Because of a lack of consistent definitions, satisfactory replication is big issue in meditation research.
This is not a criticism of meditation. I have seen and experienced the benefits of meditation over many years. But I would like to see significant reforms in the way meditation is researched. The Science of Meditation is a website that highlights and reviews some of the latest research into meditation. Recent blog entries include studies investigating the effectiveness of meditation in a clinical setting as well as workable definitions of the term mindfulness.