Meditation: explanations without woo
December 4, 2016 6:01 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some readings that explain the science behind meditation?

I'm not dissing the spiritualists -- I'm just not interested.
I read The Relaxation Response about 45 years ago, in which a Harvard prof examined the measurable physiological changes that occur during meditation. I assume there have been further studies since then, and summaries of them.
I'm not a doctor, so I'm not looking for clinical studies. What's today's 'Relaxation Response'?
posted by LonnieK to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Not specifics but the term meditation has a lot of spiritual baggage, the term de jure seems to be "mindfulness", so you may have a bit more luck googling with that.
posted by sammyo at 6:15 PM on December 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Meditation by Ian Gawler is a good review of different approaches to meditation, completely without woo as I recall.

Jon Kabat Zinn's books Full Catastrophe Living and Coming to Our Senses have zero woo, but can be a bit dry. I wouldn't call them clinical studies, but you might, so definitely preview them first. They're both quite long.

As Sammyo says, the term "mindfulness" removes the woo for you in many cases nowadays. The book of the same name, Mindfulness by Mark Williams, is pretty good if you're looking for experiential techniques.
posted by SafetyPirate at 6:20 PM on December 4, 2016

Check out some of the work of Richard Davidson at UW-Madison:

Also, the Mind and Life Institute
posted by pilibeen at 6:25 PM on December 4, 2016

This 2016 study demonstrated a link between meditation and changes in the brain (which did not occur with simple relaxation techniques). Related NYT article here.
posted by veery at 6:32 PM on December 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Buddha's Brain might be the right book for you. Lots about the neuroscience behind it all, though it looks like it might also include Buddhist teachings. My ADHD psychologist recommended it.
posted by hardlikealgebra at 7:29 PM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the work of Sam Harris. He is a neuroscientist and very prominent pro-science activist, one of the "four horsemen" of the new atheism. You don't get much more non-woo than him. He is also a practitioner and vocal proponent of meditation. You ask for people who aren't "spiritualist", so I should warn: Harris thinks there's a version of spiritualism, accessible through meditation, that doesn't require belief in any form of religion or supernatural phenomena. (ie: a kind of intense and serious and important experience that comes from observing the inner workings of the mind). His book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion talks a lot about this, and about meditation.

You might also like the work of Michael Taft, who has a web site and book called The Mindful Geek. His tag line is "Mindfulness without the Mysticism", and he focuses a lot of the practice of meditation without any connection to religious or supernatural beliefs.
posted by ManInSuit at 5:05 AM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

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