Meditation research: Intriguing possibilities, barriers to progress

‘The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries.’ Photo: ©

LOS ALTOS, CA, Nov. 11, 2013 – “How do we advance an entire field to be more inclusive of the broader range of human experiences?” asked Cassandra Vieten, a clinical psychologist and accomplished researcher during her recent plenary talk at the Science & Nonduality conference in San Jose, Ca. A provocative question, to be sure, and one that could apply to just about any line of scientific investigation.

For Vieten, who holds senior positions at a number of San Francisco area research institutes, such investigations are focused largely on what she describes as “the frontiers of consciousness” including the effect of meditation on personal health and well-being. Even in this decidedly human arena, however, Vieten sees room for growth.

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“Conventional scientific studies on meditation so far have focused almost completely on individuals above the neck,” she said. “We’re really hyper-focused on the brain” and not enough on our connections with one another. How does our state of mind affect our loved ones? Why do we like to meditate in groups? In what ways does meditation instill a sense of hope and meaning?

“I think that many people engage in meditation because, when they do, they have a deeply authoritative subjective experience of not being alone in the world but, instead, being completely interconnected,” said Vieten. “And if that’s true, then we can measure that interconnection scientifically.”

For some, meditation serves as a kind of mental cleansing, a conscious and often guided effort to empty the mind of any stressful or distracting thoughts. For others, meditation is more akin to the prayers of Old Testament writers who would ponder (the Hebrew root of “meditate”) some aspect of the Divine as a way to restore a sense of mental and physical balance, as in “…his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalms 1:2).

That said, Vieten was careful to point out that meditation, or by association prayer, is not simply a substitute for conventional medical treatment.

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“So far, most of the research is treating meditation like it’s the new form of aspirin or a new form of Prozac,” she said, “and if I give you this dosage of meditation, how much improvement am I going to see in your symptoms?”

But what happens, Vieten asked, when an individual’s meditative practice includes both ups and downs, even a complete reevaluation of one’s identity? What if the mental “deconstruction process,” as she describes it, appears daunting, even if in the end it leaves you in a much better place?

“Science has a hard time dealing with this because we want the drug to be useful, and we might call this an ‘adverse side effect,’” said Vieten. “If any of you have been through a process like this, you know that it may be something that’s required for transformation.”

So why are these aspects of meditation, over and above the well-documented health benefits – the interconnectedness and moral growth the practice inspires and the personal transformation it often hastens – not being studied more widely?

Vieten offers up a few possibilities.

“The critique I get from most people is, ‘That’s just a load of pseudoscience,’” she said. “So ‘pseudoscience’ means ‘fake science,’ using scientific language to pretend like you’re studying something when you’re not really… even if the methods are completely consistent with science.”

“So, when people get past the pseudoscience argument,” Vieten continued, “the next thing is, ‘These topics, regardless of their importance, are not amenable to scientific investigation, they’re invisible, they’re imaginary; we just can’t do it.”

Other barriers to progress include the assumption that such research should be held to a higher standard than conventional studies or that, in Vieten’s words, science simply can’t take it.

“I get a lot of emotion from skeptical scientists who are really [upset] that we’re doing this kind of research,” she said during an earlier talk at Burning Man 2012. “They think it makes them look bad, that we’re bringing down the whole field, that we’re damaging the whole endeavor of science, that we’re contaminating it with mysticism.

“All I can say is, I can’t disagree more.”

Regardless of how long this last line of defense holds firm – that is, the human mind’s general reluctance to shift paradigms, particularly when it involves giving up a largely matter-based view of things – Vieten would argue that the cumulative effects of the so-called mind-body-spirit connection can no longer be denied.

“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena,” she said, quoting inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla, “it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”

This is the kind of advancement we can all look forward to.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.


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Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson has been published and featured in numerous newspapers, online publications, and radio talk programs. He speaks from years of experience in the mind-body field, especially as it relates to health. In addition, he is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California and is a self-employed Christian Science practitioner. He’s also a huge baseball fan and loves riding his bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. You can find him at

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