Report: The Science of Meditation at the BA Science Festival

BA The BA Festival of Science came to Liverpool in 2008, and Whole Science was there for an event called ‘Sustaining Happiness: The Science of Buddhist Meditation’.

What was the talk about?

 The event centered around the importance of psychological well-being and happiness and its relation to health. Within this context, meditation practice and the development of mindfulness skills have become an intensively researched area and first theoretical appraisals linking western psychological theories and ancient buddhist perspectives on mental balance and well-being have been proposed.

What scientific evidence is there that meditation is beneficial for health?

Meditators show reduced susceptibility to interference and increased processing speed (Moore and Malinowski, in press) and improved abilities to sustain attention (Carter et al. 2005). Other studies show the positive effects of mindfulness-based meditations on perceived stress and various chronic diseases (Baer et al, 2003, Grossman et al, 2004 for reviews).

Furthermore, links between meditation and positive mood and affect have been established, most notably through a study by Davidson et al. (2003), which indicates that mindfulness meditation may change the pattern of brain activity in the front of the brain in a way that is indicative of improved positive emotions and dispositional affect.

 Finally, Liverpool John Moores University investigated the link between meditation experience and various self-report measures of well-being in buddhist meditators and found that with increased meditation experience also higher levels of happiness, higher extraversion, less neuroticism and less dependence on material goods were reported (Konig et al., submitted).

What was the overall conclusion of the talk? 

The studies presented are indicative of the wide range of beneficial effects meditation may have on brain function, cognitive performance, well-being and happiness.

The evidence presented here suggests that two approaches to human well-being, the ancient contemplative approach refined over many centuries in various buddhist traditions throughout Asia and the western approach of psychological science have the potential to complement each other.

What will this mean for the general public?

The talk – especially within the context of the whole symposium on sustaining happiness –  provided scientific arguments that may help people to realise that meditation practice may be something meaningful for their own life. It showed that this approach to training ones mind does not need to sit uncomfortably in the corner of ‘spirituality’, ‘belief’ or ‘religion’. The scientific evidence speaks for itself. Meditation may thus become more acceptable and accessible as a tool for enriching ones life and discovering more of the inherent human potentials that too often remain covered by the daily hassles of a busy urban life.

So where will the science of meditation go in the future?

The results from Liverpool John Moore’s studies as well as several others in this field generally are in line with the assumption that meditation practice and the improvement of mindfulness skills support mental balance and well-being. However, there is still a long way to go until principles and underlying mechanisms are clearly identified and confirmed. Meditation research certainly is still in its infancy.

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