Why are the effects of meditation so hard to understand?

As criticism of the science of meditation grow, is it time to go back to the beginning?

Physics and meditation
Does psychology have the right tools to understand meditation?

I planned my recent dissertation research to follow the trajectory of the Zen school of psychotherapy during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Accounts of Meiji New Buddhism’s adoption by psychological science offer interesting parallels with the growth of mindfulness (there is the exciting possibility that different appropriations of Buddhist knowledge by Western science might share common patterns). However, my plan radically changed when I bumped into Fritjof Capra’s 1975 paper Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.1

Although Capra was known to me, I hadn’t read any of his early research or more recent best-selling books. Now in his eighties, I thought of him as a physicist developing system theories linked to sustainability. What I discovered was that some of his early work focussed on demonstrating ontological differences between Eastern and Western knowledge systems. Capra’s paper describes the world views of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, comparing them with Western science.2 In doing so, he highlights more than a dozen problems manifest in the contemporary scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation. One of which I’m going to discuss here; world views as either organic or mechanistic.

person walks towards temple

Having experienced the benefits of meditation first hand, I find the failure of psychology to reliably demonstrate the cause and effect of meditation as both wasteful and confusing. As many as ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments have been conducted over the last forty years. Yet cognitive psychology describes research in this area as preliminary! Over time my thinking has settled on two questions; i) how does a spiritual practice become a secular (scientific) practice and ii) what is lost and gained in this transition? Put concisely, how well has the West understood and utilised meditation systems?

Strategic reviews of research published since 2016 generally identify two limitations in the science of meditation, an absence of theoretical frameworks and widespread methodological flaws. The lack of a cohesive ontology (framework) is the greater of the two problems. Without a guiding rationale, the scientific method can become directionless, entangling the means with the ends. Capra’s paper sets out an interpretation of the characteristics of Eastern spiritual understandings, thus offering signposts as to why the West can’t quite figure meditation out. I’m just pausing for a moment here, what is supposed to happen if experimental psychology is unable to understand aspects of human behaviour?

high angle photo of robot

The essence of this argument is that while the mystical East has an organic world view, the West has invested heavily in mechanistic understandings. Capra’s paper is 45 years old; much has changed in physics, psychology and contemplative science in this time.3 But as a theoretical study, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism deals with overarching concerns that are timeless. Capra argues that the view of ‘reality’ developed in the West rests on certain principles, such as those set out by the anatomist Democritus. It was the progression of this view that led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the Western way of understanding almost everything.

The division of nature into separate objects is, of course, useful and necessary to cope with our everyday environment, but it is not a fundamental feature of reality.

1Fritjof Capra, p. 21.

Conversely Eastern understandings see nature as much more interconnected, that  Western categorisations and laws of nature are constructs, built by mental processes rather than absolute ‘truths’. Capra offers a deal of evidence from quantum physics to demonstrate how this proposition might work with the inanimate. But for the psychological sciences, the value of this insight is self-evident, humans rarely respond to complex phenomena in a universally predictable manner. And where experiments reveal ‘universality’ in human behaviours, there are generally several factors influencing the data, including society and the experimental method. You don’t need a laboratory to illustrate the limitations of dualistic models of mind and body; it’s sufficient to sit quietly and think about it.

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall

So what does this piece of ‘dated’ quantum physics mean for our understanding of meditation? The essence of this work highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) of East and West. Suggestive of a conceptual gap between meditation’s original function and purpose and contemporary science frameworks. That the West follows a ‘culturally situated’ mechanistic presumption of causality, even when considering human nature.4 Not to claim that Newtonian physics doesn’t ‘work’, but suggesting that it is one approach in a more sophisticated understanding of life. Psychology’s failure to recognise the importance of base ontology when appropriating culturally ‘alien’ technologies is fascinating. Have we been we trying to understand meditation through the effect rather than the cause? This kind of thinking might explain the lack of replicated results after four decades of experimentation.5

Despite problems with over-generalisation, Capra offers insights into why a traditional understanding of meditation might be almost incomprehensible to positivist science. That a scientist (or even a meditator) rooted in a dualistic viewpoint is unable to access the path to a nondual understanding. Advocates of contemporary secular methods can maintain that the ontologies of mystical traditions are unrelated to modern mindfulness. This could be a reliable observation, but it gives rise to two at least two problems. It limits meditation to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), perhaps the reason why modern secular meditation methods rarely outperform CBT in clinical trials. Secondly, it throws the baby out with the bathwater! The benefits of traditional meditation are universal and profoundly different from those offered by CBT. To use the limitations of positivism to define technology, risks reducing knowledge to known frames of reference. It also inevitably chains positivism to a very low developmental trajectory. Capra offers some hope that a movement towards a mature understanding of ‘interdisciplinary’ might be able to deliver replicated evidence of the benefits of meditation.

 

Notes:

1 Capra, F. (1976). Modern physics and eastern mysticism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(1).

2 Capra also discusses Hinduism and Taoism in this paper. Grouping ideas from different Buddhist schools or diverse religio-philosophical systems can lead to over-generalisations, each of the points made needs to considerer on its individual merit.

3 I’m unfamiliar with Capra’s later studies; his views may have changed radically since this paper was published. I’d be delighted to hear from you if you are familiar with his recent work, feel free to email me or post comments in the text box below.

4 Capra’s thinking embraces physics generally, the emphasis on human behaviour here is my focus rather than a reflection of the paper under discussion.

5 While the existing positivist ontologies present in cognitive psychology offer investigatory potential, there are two problems if traditional meditation is based on a Western world view.  Firstly without cognisance of the spiritual frameworks, the contemporary interpretation of the original practices may lack elements foundational to its understanding. Secondly, while positivist approaches will produce data, what is being measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.

The science of mindfulness

How can we understand the science of mindfulness, if claims regarding problems in theoretical frameworks and methodological treatment prove to be reliable?

Reliable measurement is a central tenet of experimental psychology, but deciding what to measure is a much more complex question.
Accurate measurement is crucial to science, but deciding what to measure may be a more challenging question in mindfulness research

How do we understand mindfulness?

As a universal human capacity, mindfulness can be viewed from many conflicting, coexisting and complimentary perspectives. However, the exponential growth in the science of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. In addition, (d) that complex human behaviours and cognitive states can be understood through reductive investigations, (e) delivering data which can be reliably measured. In many respects, this positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate mindfulness is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.

Mindfulness and experimental psychology

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt – Founder of experimental psychology

The architect of experimental psychology is considered to be Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that complex human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individual, nuanced behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which are mediated by unique environmental conditions? One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) at least two stable fixed points that can be reliably measured in order to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot establish their own fixed points for the purposes of generating data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is uncertain1.

Precision in definitions of mindfulness

Reviews of the scientific literature have indicate that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. And that there are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is engaged with in scientific settings. But uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science, was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. And today contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of exactly what mindfulness might be, or how interventions are able to meditate it. The pressing question is how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies authoritative definition at the theoretical and operational level?

 

What do you think?

That mindfulness exists, and that it may be able to offer benefits to some practitioners is not disputed. But a lack of precision in defining the meta-cognitive state of mindfulness should raise concerns among scientists and clinicians. There are a number of potential solutions to these apparently intractable problems, but some may be beyond the scope of the ontology underpinning experimental psychology. Such as an understanding of implicit and explicit non dual states, or the creation of instruments able to integrate comprehensive, first, second and third person experience. But as the first article of this blog, the author wishes to pose two open questions. How has the ‘mindfulness revolution’ been fuelled without reliable understandings in place? What does this suggest about the way science intersects with society in general?


Taking about mindfulness

The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.

Rupert Gethin4

References

1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.

3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.

4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.


Notes

Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons