The journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has released an issue devoted to studies of brain correlates of different kinds of meditation. One article, on compassion or loving-kindness meditation, is open access. For me, the crucial article is the last one, written by a senior guru of the brain imaging field, Michael Posner, and his colleague Yi-Yuan Tang, outlining theoretical and methodological issues in the field. They note that reviews of the field have:
..summarized four components of how mindfulness meditation may work: (i) attention regulation, (ii) body awareness, (iii) emotion regulation (including reappraisal, exposure, extinction and reconsolidation) and (iv) change in perspective on the self. The authors indicate that mindfulness practice comprises a process of enhanced self-regulation that can be differentiated into distinct but interrelated components. While these components are a start, future empirical work should identify additional components of mindfulness and establish to what extent the components involve distinct mechanisms.Many studies have difficulties with appropriate control and comparison subjects:
Different control and comparison groups have been used in mindfulness research, such as waiting lists, active control groups and interventions designed to match the non-specific effects of mindfulness practices, such as trainer’s confidence, expectancy effects and group support... Ideally, participants would be randomly assigned to condition, and the conditions would be matched with the many non-specific factors that have been found to produce beneficial change... Random assignment allows the changes observed in mindfulness research to be reasonably attributed to the active ingredient of mindfulness practice per se rather than to pre-existing differences in the experimental and control groups. Therefore, moving the field will require the use of rigorous comparison conditions to which participants are randomly assigned.
In long-term studies, an active control is not possible. In studies of long-term practitioners such as monks with many thousands of hours of practice, it is challenging to find even a matched control group. We don’t know how the monks differed before meditation practice and other factors including the environment and low stress, which differ from any ‘matched’ control group.Other issues are that the various studies employ different mindfulness techniques, stages of practice, or duration of training. (Motivated readers can request a copy of his article from me.)