Experimental Scientific Evidence of Benefits of Experiential Meditation for Higher Education

by Carrie Heeter, 1/19/2014

meditationHigherEdScientific methods used to study yogic-meditative practices document wonderful outcomes but ignore the process and experience of meditation. Today I write about a review of empirical evidence of how meditation practices complement and enhance higher education, conducted by Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2011). They identified three primary rationales for incorporating meditation into higher education: 1.) Improving Cognition and Academic Performance; 2.) Improving Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being; and 3.) Development of the Whole Person.

Within the outcome of improved cognition, the authors reviewed four empirical studies of the effect of meditation on attention, where meditators were compared with control groups. Three of those administered standard psychological tests to measure attention, and one used fMRI brain scans. Four experiments examining the impact of meditation on information processing were reviewed. This section concluded by describing an experiment in which subjects randomly assigned to a semester-long meditation intervention had significantly higher GPAs at the end of the semester.

Four decades of western science research confirms that practicing meditation improves mental health and psychological well-being. The review highlighted studies conducted in the context of higher education, describing studies that found significant decreases in perceived stress, negative affect, rumination, state and trait anxiety, and depression among meditators compared to the control group, as well as increased positive affect and self-reported mindfulness.

The empirical evidence reviewed related to whole person development included four studies showing significant increases attributed to mediation practices in creativity, several documenting improved interpersonal relationship functioning, two studies showing significantly improved empathy, and three studies documenting increased self-compassion.

Meditation fascinates me.  I have embarked on long term experiential personal journey and am privileged to have the opportunity to study meditation one-on-one with an expert teacher and guide. As a user experience designer, I see meditation a a form of designed experience. The  documented positive outcomes for higher education sound great. I want to bring these outcomes to my students.

Speaking as a social scientist who has modest but growing experience with mediation, the methods used in the research in this review seemed strangely at odds with the realities of meditative practice.

The experiments in the review claim to have administered meditation interventions (let’s call them “meditation pills”) to randomly assigned research participants in a uniform way. Studying meditation by randomly assigning dosages of meditation pills ignores and fails to understand the experience of meditation as a voluntary, deeply personal, internal, challenging though worthwhile practice.  Meditation is not a pill.

The studies discussed in the review applied meditation pill interventions, over long periods of time.  For example, in one study (Rani and Rao, 2000), students in the experimental condition were assigned to practice Transcendental Meditation for 20 minutes twice a day for 18 months. Extending the pill analogy, did each student really take the prescribed 1080 meditation pills?  How did individuals experience, internalize, and adopt this new habit of mind?

In another pre-test post-test study, one of two experimental groups completed a month-long residential mindfulness mediation retreat with a 10-12 hour per day practice schedule (what!?).   Another experimental group participated in an 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program consisting of one 3 hour class per week and a recommended 30 minutes per day of meditation practice (Jha et al 2006).  How many took the prescribed 56 meditation pills?  How many internalized the concepts and practices? In what way?

In a third study (So and Orme-Johnson, 1991), vocational training students in Taiwan  randomly assigned to the experimental condition experienced transcendental meditation training and then 15-20 minutes twice per day for 12 months. They took the equivalent of 720 transcendental meditation pills.  A control group took 15-20 minute naps twice per day for 12 months (720 sleeping pills). I can’t imagine my students agreeing to take naps twice a day for one week. What was compliance like? Did the nappers fall asleep twice a day, on schedule?

The studies included in Shapiro et al.’s review were “good science” in several ways. They used standardized psychological and physiological measurements as dependent variables. They painstakingly set up control and experimental conditions, often using randomization to assign participants to experimental and control conditions.

Note that assigning someone to meditate twice a day for 18 months may sound like good science, but it does not sound like good meditation. It is actually a very messy intervention. Despite the intention of experimental treatment uniformity, the “uniformity” of a treatment condition of that nature will in no way resemble that neat little gold standard pill.

All of the empirical studies reviewed assume that effects occur when meditation is practiced repeatedly over months, years, or more.  What is the mechanism for over time effects?  Who rejects and who adopts or internalizes regular meditative practice? Science needs to better understand what happens DURING mediation for an individual.

In conclusion, substantial scientific evidence documents myriad benefits of meditation for higher education. But that evidence is built upon meditation-as-a-pill approaches to randomized, controlled trials.  I look forward to reading (and conducting) studies that look more deeply at the nature and process of meditation.

Jha, A., Krompinger, J. and Baime, M.J. (2006). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109-119.

Rani, N.J., & and Rao, P.V. (2000). Effects of meditation on attention processes. Journal of Indian Psychology, 18, 52-60.

Shapiro, S., Brown, K.W. & Astin, J. (2011). Toward the integration of meditation into higher education: A review of research evidence. Teachers College Record 11:3:493-528.

So, K. & and Orme-Johnson, D. (2001). Three randomized experiments on the longitudinal effects of the transcendental meditation technique on cognition. Intelligence, 29, 419-440.