Meditation and Health: The Search for Mechanisms of Action



Psychological interest in the impact of mental states on biological functioning is growing rapidly, driving a need for new methods for inducing mental states that last long enough, and are sufficiently impactful, to have significant effects on physical health. The many traditions of meditative practice are one potential pathway for studying mind-body interactions. The purpose of this review is to introduce personality and social psychologists to the field of meditation research. Beginning with a brief introduction to meditation and the heterogeneity of meditative practices, we showcase research linking meditative practice to changes in immune and cardiovascular functioning and pain perception. We then discuss theoretical and empirical evidence that meditation works by inducing changes in psychological capacities such as emotion regulation and self-regulation or through repeated induction of specific mental states such as love or meta-cognitive awareness. At the frontier of the science of meditation is the need to empirically test whether meditation-driven changes in cognitive and affective processes are the cause of improvements in physical health. Emerging challenges in meditation research include a need for large studies using randomized controlled and dual-blind designs with active control groups and an increased focus on measuring mechanisms of action as well as outcomes. Meditation represents a potentially powerful tool for generating new knowledge of mind-body interactions.