Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Meditation is a form of deep concentration in which the mind is focused on a single thing (in some varieties) or emptied of thought (in others). This sounds easy but can be hard for beginners. When a state of meditative calm is attained, people often experience profound feelings of peacefulness or spiritual renewal.
Researchers have attempted to study meditation, with mixed results. Practitioners of TM (transcendental meditation) dominated early research reports with positive findings. In the 1980s, researchers not affiliated with TM produced less impressive conclusions.
A study of beginning meditators resulted in a variety of experiences. Even the most advanced of these corresponded to beginner levels of meditative experience, if one refers to reports from cultures where meditators train for decades.
In the 1980s, a type of meditation called mindfulness was introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He found that it helped chronic pain patients, in a study reported in 1985. Susan Langer wrote a bestseller titled Mindfulness (1989) that introduced more psychologists to the topic.
Over the next 25 years, mindfulness was used in thousands of studies. It was found to be effective in reducing stress and taking the mind off anxious or depressed thoughts, for some people.
Research on mindfulness is difficult, because participants know they are expected to report improvements, and few of the studies are randomized and controlled with the ideal, double-blind procedures.
When a team from Johns Hopkins surveyed all the mindfulness research, they found that only 47 studies out of 18,753 were randomized and controlled. Those studies reported moderate evidence of improvements in anxiety and depression and "low" evidence of improvements in stress or health-related quality of life.
In the 2010s researchers are concentrating more on analyzing neural control mechanisms that might explain how attention is altered in meditative states. The brain areas involved are widely distributed, because attention involves many different areas.
Researchers have found mindfulness to be correlated with reduced activity in areas devoted to focused attention. Mindfulness is also associated with reduced activity in the Default Mode Network, the brain circuits used for everyday thinking when attention is not focused on any task.
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