Meditation practices are increasingly being adapted into secular formats such as “mindfulness.” In these new contexts, the spiritual or soteriolog- ical aspects of meditation have been largely put aside and the putative benefits of meditation in terms of physical and mental health are empha- sized within a scientific (and especially neuroscientific) framework. For instance, invoking the neuroscience principle of neuroplasticity, it is often claimed that the human brain can be “improved” or “enhanced” through regular meditation practice, and that the more time is spent practicing meditation, the greater the benefits—a “dose-response” rela- tionship as if taking a pharmacological drug. 

But what does neuroscience actually say, so far, about meditation? We will review some landmark neuroscientific studies of meditation, as well as the many remaining gaps in our knowledge in this field of research. We will then contrast this current state of the research, which is still at a very early stage, with some of the exaggerated claims regarding the neurosci- ence of meditation, such as that meditation demonstrably enhances brain function(s), is entirely safe, and can benefit anybody. We will explore the idea that these claims are highly problematic because they impede scientific progress by claiming closure on questions that are still unan- swered and may even be harmful from a public health standpoint due to unrealistic expectations placed on the therapeutic value of meditation. Our discussion will conclude with suggestions of high-priority research questions for future neuroscientific studies of meditation.

Gaelle Desbordes, PhD

Grants & Science Manager, Mind & Life Institute

Fellow, Grantee, PPC Member

Gaelle is the Grants & Science Manager of the Mind & Life Institute, where she oversees the grants programs. A trained neuroscientist, she was previously on the research faculty at … MORE