Researchers are investigating the psychological and physiological processes that contribute to possible mental and physical health benefits of meditation. More than 40 scientists from universities throughout the United States and Europe are collaborating in the project and its offshoots, using methods ranging from molecular biology, health psychology and cognitive neuroscience to anthropology and network science.
Using cognitive and perceptual tasks, emotional provocation, questionnaires, and physiological and biochemical monitoring, we assess study participants' skills and behavior before, during and after long-term, intensive meditative practice. Initial results show that intensive contemplative training sharpens and sustains attention, enhances well-being, and leads to less judgmental, more empathic emotional responding to the suffering of others. Additionally, the training was linked with pro-social emotional behavior and important physiological markers of health.
One channel of our research assesses health-relevant biomarkers in which medication training may induce change. Telomerase, an enzyme that protects genetic material during cell division and enhances cellular viability, often is suppressed in response to psychological distress. Blood samples obtained from study participants following extensive meditation reveals that telomerase activity increases significantly among retreat participants in comparison to people who do not participate in meditation, and that telomerase activity appears to be related to meditation-induced changes in well-being.