Questions that warrant research attention

Davidson, R. J., & Dahl, C. J. (2018). Outstanding challenges in scientific research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 13, no. 1, pp. 62-5, DOI: 10.1177/1745691617718358. Full text.

From the Introduction. The article by Van Dam and colleagues (see previous post in this blog) presents a very useful corrective to the hype and claims associated with the burgeoning interest in mindfulness and meditation. The authors review a number of key issues and concerns with research in this domain including the problematic meaning of the term “mindfulness,” the differing measures of mindfulness and challenges to their construct validity, challenges for clinical intervention methodology including the variations in the types and content of various mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) that have been examined, the growing evidence of potential adverse effects in a small subset of individuals who partake of MBIs, and the challenge of conducting neuro-scientific research in this area. For each of these topics, the authors also provide a prescriptive vision for the types of research that are needed to address the concerns and challenges that are described.

While we wholeheartedly agree with the central issues highlighted in this article and believe that this article, along with several other critical articles that have appeared recently, will provide an important recalibration of the claims and conclusions that are warranted from the contemporary scientific literature on this topic, we believe that the prescriptive agenda offered in their article can be usefully expanded.

In this commentary, we address a few of the specific concerns raised by the authors and show that they are not specific to mindfulness or meditation research and that attention to the broader context of these challenges can be helpful in addressing them. Second, we widen the prescriptive agenda offered in their article and underscore several key questions that the authors did not raise that warrant serious research attention for this
field to have impact. In this commentary we make five key points that build from the issues raised by Van Dam and colleagues.

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Neuroscience and mindfulness meditation

Tang, Y.-Y., & Leve, L. D. (2016). A translational neuroscience perspective on mindfulness meditation as a prevention strategy. Translational Behavioral Medicine, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 63–72. http://doi.org/10.1007/s13142-015-0360-x. Full text.

See also: MacKinnon, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness: How the default mode network helps explain the benefit of a deep breath. Psychology Today. Full text.

Mindfulness meditation research mainly focuses on psychological outcomes such as behavioral, cognitive, and emotional functioning. However, the neuroscience literature on mindfulness meditation has grown in recent years.

This paper provides an overview of relevant neuroscience and psychological research on the effects of mindfulness meditation. We propose a translational* prevention framework of mindfulness and its effects. Drawing upon the principles of prevention science, this framework integrates neuroscience and prevention research and postulates underlying brain regulatory mechanisms that explain the impact of mindfulness on psychological outcomes via self-regulation mechanisms linked to underlying brain systems.

We conclude by discussing potential clinical and practice implications of this model and directions for future research.


* “The term translational medicine was introduced in the 1990s but only gained wide usage in the early 2000s. Its definition varies according to the stakeholder. Patients, physicians, and other practitioners tend to use the term to refer to the need to accelerate the incorporation of benefits of research into clinical medicine and to close the gap between “what we know” and “what we practice.” Academics tend to interpret translational medicine as the testing of novel concepts from basic research in clinical situations, which in turn provide opportunity for the identification of new concepts. In industry it is used in reference to a process that is aimed at expediting the development and commercialization of known therapies. Although different, these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they reflect different priorities for achieving a common goal.” (https://www.britannica.com/science/translational-medicine

Cultivating emotional balance: two case studies

Weininger, Radhule, et al. “The Mindful Pause: Cultivating Emotional Balance through Mindfulness.” No date. Full text.

Abstract. The Buddhist technique named Mindfulness has become widespread in clinical
practice as a way to approach mental and emotional well being. The mindful pause is described as a way to interrupt habitual reactivity and engage compassionately.

It forms a step in the Emotional Awareness Process (EAP) and the Compassionate
Choice Process (CCP), which have been developed as therapeutic techniques
grounded in both Buddhist and neuroscientific contexts.

Two case examples of application of the processes illustrate how these new therapeutic interventions may prove beneficial in clinical practice. Lastly, more potential applications are proposed, and possible limitations, future projects and research noted.

How does loving-kindness meditation alter brain and body?

Mascaro, J. S., Darcher, A., Negi, L. T., & Raison, C. (2015). The neural mediators of kindness-based meditation: a theoretical model. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 109. To access full text, click here, then open PDF.

brain-budAbstract. Although kindness-based contemplative practices are increasingly employed by clinicians and cognitive researchers to enhance prosocial emotions, social cognitive skills, and well-being, and as a tool to understand the basic workings of the social mind, we lack a coherent theoretical model with which to test the mechanisms by which kindness-based meditation may alter the brain and body.

Here we link contemplative accounts of compassion and lovingkindness practices with research from social cognitive neuroscience and social psychology to generate predictions about how diverse practices may alter brain structure and function and related aspects of social cognition.

Contingent on the nuances of the practice, kindness-based meditation may enhance the neural systems related to faster and more basic perceptual or motor simulation processes, simulation of another’s affective body state, slower and higher-level perspective-taking, modulatory processes such as emotion regulation and self/other discrimination, and combinations thereof.

This theoretical model will be discussed alongside bestpractices for testing such a model and potential implications and applications of future work.

The neuroscience of mindfulness and contemplative practice

Paulson, S., Davidson, R., Jha, A., & Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2013). Becoming conscious: the science of mindfulness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1303(1), 87-104.

Abstract. Many of us go through our daily lives on autopilot, not fully aware of our conscious experiences. In a discussion moderated by Steve Paulson, executive producer and host of To the Best of Our Knowledge, neuroscientists Richard Davidson and Amishi Jha and clinical mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn explore the role of consciousness in mental and physical health, how we can train our minds to be more flexible and adaptable, and cutting-edge neuroscience findings about the transformation of consciousness through mindfulness and contemplative practice.

Read an edited transcript of the discussion that occurred in February at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City.