There is Always Going to be a Gap

Neuroscience researcher Catherine Kerr talking about what has surprised her most about her meditation research (Forbes, September 9, 2011):

Two things have surprised me and I think they are a little bit related.

First, I was surprised by my experience of the actual practice of mindfulness meditation. My experience came about because I felt that it was important, as a scientist, to actually undergo the same type of training as my subjects.

So after all of my subjects were done with the course, out of curiosity, I actually enrolled in the same 8-week standardized mindfulness course and, on a subjective level, I found it to be very transforming—this surprised me. The course involved daily sitting meditation practice, the core of which involved an attentional focus on the breath and body-related sensations for 20-30 mins per day. This attentional focus was more difficult than I thought it would be. The difficulty wasn’t so much in the beginning. Rather, it was about half way through the 8-week class, I found that the meditation practice actually brought up some charged unresolved emotions from different past experiences.  What I found was that, at first these unresolved emotions were difficult but as I continued in the course, they actually became much more easy to deal with – and in general, I just felt more at ease, even in difficult or stressful situations.

But my experience was so complex: were these effects captureable through the brain imaging paradigm that I designed?  Having more control over the cortical dynamics of attention should lead to having more ability to regulate cognition, including cognitions related to emotionally charged issues. But, of course, I did not directly test this question.

One reason I tell this story is to emphasize there is always going to be a gap between the subjective effects that people report experiencing during meditation and the putative objective brain mechanisms that are put forth to explain the effects. Skeptics deal with this gap by simply dismissing the subjective experience as “woo.” I understand why they do this – but I think this dismissal is actually quite unscientific since one of the things that’s so fascinating about a practice like mindfulness meditation is the fact that it seems to reliably induce these complex, transformational subjective experiences. In their exit interviews, my subjects spontaneously offered different accounts of personal transformation. Isn’t that interesting?

Of course, the flip-side of this impulse to reject subjective experience that you see in the skeptic community can be seen in meditation enthusiasts and their uncritical embrace of neuroscience—this embrace has been my second surprise.

There has been a kind of mania or madness surrounding the brain and meditation that I see most strongly in studies reporting on brain plasticity. Take the wonderful work (on which I am a coauthor), led by Sara Lazar at MGH, on structural changes in the brain that are correlated with meditative practice. This research is fascinating and very promising but it is also fraught with uncertainty.

When we see differences between experienced meditators and controls on structural MRI images we don’t actually know what is causing that difference.  It could be changes in vasculature or in dendritic arborisation. And these differences matter a lot as we consider how structural changes might relate to any possible changes in how the brain processes information. For instance, since these brain changes are not correlated with any measure of function, we don’t know if the reported changes in brain structure are a good thing, since there can be pathological increases in brain structure which have been observed in some diseases!

Yet people take this idea that “meditation grows your brain” (which we never claimed in our early report and which Sara Lazar still approaches cautiously although she has published new data on this question) and run with it, to the point of absurdity—the idea that meditation might change brain structure appears to exert some kind of magnetic power (for an example of this, check out the coverage of Sara Lazar’s recent study in Gawker or a recent Huffpo piece that I flagged on Twitter). Some of the ways in which our 2005 study have been summarized point to a shocking lack of scientific literacy about brain imaging and a poor understanding of what a correlational brain study in experienced meditators can actually tell us.

Read the entire interview...