The Science of Mindfulness Part 4: Physical Health, Self & Interpersonal Processes

In our previous post we started looking at the insightful research papers in the field of the basic science perspective of mindfulness. After focusing on the current state of knowledge regarding cognitive processes, emotion processes and neural correlates, the fourth part of the series delves into the effects of mindfulness on physical health, self and interpersonal processes.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

This blog is the fourth in our series on the special issue of the Current Opinion in Psychology journal. Here we explore more of the third chapter of the special mindfulness issue, titled Basic Science Perspective. What is the effect of meditation on our physical health, self and interpersonal processes and what are the underlying biological mechanisms through which this works? While researchers are beginning to understand, most studies point to the need for larger data sets and additional research before science can confirm what the meditator intuitively knows to be true.

Learn about the background of this immense collaboration to present where the science of mindfulness is at. We also recomment to read Part 2 and Part 3 of the blog series.

Find the bibliography at the end of this article.

Mindfulness And Physical Health

Mindfulness for sleep is a widely discussed topic. Amanda Shallcross and her team from the New York University School of Medicine delve into the research on meditation’s effects on sleep. They address the burgeoning evidence that suggests mindfulness-based interventions may be a promising means of improving sleep outcomes. They point to studies that have shown mindfulness as effective for those with insomnia, chronic disease or psychiatric conditions, yet with insignificant results.

The group asks for the use of randomized control trials to study mindfulness and sleep in a more conclusively, and also suggests work be done to make MBI’s accessible, scalable, and affordable for widespread use as a sleep aid.

Epigenetics And Healthy Aging

Perla Kaliman’s research focuses on epigenetics and meditation. Pilot studies suggest that Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBI) may downregulate epigenetic pathways related to inflammation, cell aging and depression. This has far-reaching health implications and needs to be investigated further with future studies.

The impact of meditation on genetic expression is a relatively new and interesting area of research, also reviewed in David Black’s paper. Among the questions Kaliman posits to future researchers is whether or not meditation can induce epigenetic events related to healthy aging.

The authors around Olga Klimecki review the existing knowledge on the effects of meditation-based training on healthy aging with focus on the domains of emotions, cognition and the preservation of brain structures and provides a suggested roadmap for future research. Quinn Conklin and colleagues of the University of California review studies tht investigate the effects of meditation on telomere biology.

Telomere length is used as a marker in measuring healthy aging and susceptibility to cell death, dementia, or heart disease. While telomeres naturally shorten as we get older, there is malleability. Research is beginning to demonstrate that meditation positively affects telomere biology, although it is unclear how and under what conditions these effects are achieved, and for how long they persist.

Mindfulness For Pain & Chronic Disease

The underlying mechanisms of how meditation affects the perception of pain is the topic of research by Joshua Grant and Fadel Zeidan. In their paper, the pair highlights how the study of pain offers unique teachings on the nature of consciousness and how mindfulness can change one’s subjective experience of pain.

Interestingly, the duo supposes that mindfulness works differently to ease pain in novice versus experienced meditators. By understanding the biological mechanisms through which meditation alters pain perception, more effective mindfulness-based treatments for pain relief could be designed.

Jeffrey M Greeson and Gabrielle Chin lament the lack of quality evidence for MBI’s impact on objective biomarkers of disease in their paper. While it’s known that many of today’s most costly and common chronic diseases are stress-related and that mindfulness can reduce stress, more empirical support is needed before mindfulness is integrated with conventional medical care.

The authors recognize that few studies show a direct impact of mindfulness on diseases, but do show mindfulness reduces stress and enhances the quality of life in patients with chronic illness. They suggest future studies focus on clarifying the effect of MBI’s on objective disease markers and clarify whether the results generalize to diverse populations outside of an academic setting.

Mindfulness And Self-Processes

The subchapter on self-processes includes two articles related to the construct of the self. Paul Gilbert of the University of Derby’s Centre for Compassion Research and Training explores the origins of caring and the cognitive competencies that allow for human compassion.

Gilbert explains how compassion evolved out of a mammalian caring system. The co-evolved process depends on not only the recognition of suffering but the willingness of those suffering to accept help. Our “evolved cognitive capacities along with certain types of self and mind awareness abilities” differentiate compassion from mammalian care-taking. Compassion underpins morality, but because of this, it can also be turned off for those we deem unworthy of compassion. The good news is, humans have the unique capacity to train, practice, and deepen their compassion. Gilbert says,

“The challenge of compassion research is to how to stimulate this basic motivation in all domains of life, be it within ourselves, within our relationships, organisations and of course in politics.”

Harvard Medical School’s Gaëlle Desbordes reviews the empirical evidence behind contemporary theories that mindfulness training impacts self-related processes in her paper.

Desbordes points out that very few self-related processes have been studied in randomized controlled trials. Of the studies with significant results, negative self-rumination is the only self-process conclusively improved by mindfulness-based intervention. Whether or not MBI have an effect on other self-processes, such as embodiment or sense of agency, remains to be studied.

In her conclusion, Desbordes calls for cross-interdisciplinary studies that go beyond the field of clinical and health psychology and invites those in the field of philosophy, cognitive and behavioral sciences to help overcome the current limitations in understanding the mechanisms of mindfulness.

Mindfulness And Interpersonal Processes

The call for more data continues as a theme in the journal’s subchapter on interpersonal processes.

Paul Condon first reviews the Buddhist traditions which impact meditation, such as ethics and relationship to one’s teacher. He then goes on to review social psychology’s methods for investigating meditation.

Contrary to self-report studies, social psychology employs the use of indirect measures, such as games involving monetary transactions, to test the effects of meditation on prosocial behavior. These real-world scenarios overcome the limitations of self-report. While studies find meditation indeed increases prosocial behavior, researchers also find that the success of meditation relies on several variables, such as the ethical context, relationship to the teacher, and pre-existing personal disposition.

Condon calls for more studies to isolate the ingredients of an effective meditation program, yet cautiously wonders if meditation’s success could ever be narrowed down to just one thing.

Yoona Kang suggests that one underlying mechanism behind meditation’s prosocial outcome is self-transcendence. Defining interpersonal self-transcendence as the “drive to benefit others beyond the self”, Kang points to studies that show self-transcendence reduces defensive self-focus, promotes positive other-focus, and integrates reward centers in the brain.

Tania Singer and Veronika Engert explore the need for differentiation between the outcomes of different meditation practices. The pair summarizes the findings of the ReSource Project, a 9-month longitudinal study comparing differences between meditations focusing on present-moment attention, compassion or loving-kindness, and meta-cognitive processes.

Using the analogy that one wouldn’t swim to improve their golfing, although they are both sports, Singer and Engert remind us that “meditation-based mental training comprises different practices targeting distinct mental faculties such as attention and interoceptive awareness, socio-emotional or socio-cognitive abilities. Consequently, it should matter what we train, and not every practice should yield the same effects.”

While the ReSource project studies support their theory, Singer and Engert would like to see more systematic studies on the effects of different types of meditation, as well as the role of individual compatibility. It may be that some types of meditation are more effective within certain populations than others.    

The general consensus from this diverse field of researchers and areas of study is that more work needs to be done to pinpoint the underlying mechanisms of how meditation relates to plasticity in the brain, changes to genetic expression, and objectively beneficial physiological and psychological outcomes.

By increasing our scientific understanding of how and why meditation works, we can not only design more effective MBI’s, but put them into practice across a wider variety of populations.

Bibliography: Learn more by reading each of the articles in Current Opinion in Psychology.

Amanda J Shallcross, Pallavi D Visvanathan, Sarah H Sperber and Zoe T Duberstein, “Waking up to the problem of sleep: can mindfulnes help? A review theory and evidence for the effects of mindfulness for sleep,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 37-41.

Perla Kaliman, “Epigenetics and meditation,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 76-80.

David S Black, Georgia Christodoulou and Steve Cole, “Mindfulness meditation and gene expression: a hypothesis-generating framework,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 302-306.

Olga Klimecki et all, “The impact of meditation on healthy ageing — the current state of knowledge and a roadmap to future directions,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 223-228.

Quinn A Conklin, Alexandra D Crosswell, Clifford D Saron and Elissa S Epel, “Meditation, stress processes, and telomere biology,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 92-101.

Joshua A Grant and Fadel Zeidan, “Employing pain and mindfulness to understand consciousness: a symbiotic relationship,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 192-197.

Jeffrey M Greeson and Gabrielle R Chin, “Mindfulness and physical disease: a concise review,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 204-210.

Paul Gilbert, “Explorations into the nature and function of compassion,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 108-114.

Gaëlle Desbordes, “Self-related processing in mindfulness-based interventions,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 312-316.

Paul Condon, “Meditation in context: factors that facilitate prosocial behavior” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 15-19.

Yoona Kang, “Examining interpersonal self-transcendence as a potential mechanism linking meditation and social outcomes,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 115-119.

Tania Singer and Veronika Engert, “It matter what you practice: differential training effects on subjectove experience, behavior, braind and body in the ReSource Project,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 151-158.

Meditation. Free.