Item ID : 4692

Shapiro, S., Brown K. W., Astin, J. (2011). Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research Evidence. Teachers College Record (113)3, 493-528

Item ID : 4692

Shapiro, S., Brown K. W., Astin, J. (2011). Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research Evidence. Teachers College Record (113)3, 493-528

This paper discusses ways in which meditation can enhance and complement current educational practices based on a review of empirical quantitative research. The authors examine how meditation can contribute to academic skills as well as build affective and interpersonal capacities fostering well-being and educating the “whole person”.

The authors define meditation as a contemplative practice usually associated with yet not confined to Asian religious traditions. The common denominator of diverse meditational practices is “the intentional training of attention and awareness such that consciousness becomes more finely attuned to events and experiences in the present” (p. 494). Most empirical studies have been conducted on concentrative meditation and mindfulness practice. The former involves focused attention on an external or internal object. Mindfulness “is supplemented by meta-awareness, which includes knowing the state of the mind at a given moment, including the quality of one’s attention, and insight, or clear seeing into the nature of the phenomena that are given attention” (p. 495). Mindfulness involves three core elements: intention, attention, and attitude (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin & Freedman, 2006). “Intention involves consciously and purposefully regulating attention. Attention refers to the ability to sustain attention in the present moment without interpretation, discrimination, or evaluation; attention is a bare registering of what is observed (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007). Attitude refers to a frame of mind brought to mindfulness meditation; commonly, this is described as openness and acceptance” (p. 495).

Meditation is different from relaxation training (Kabat-Zinn, 1996). Firstly, meditation concerns witnessing experiences as they present themselves from moment to moment. Relaxation concerns the pursuit of a particular psychophysical state of reduced autonomic arousal. Relaxation is often a by-product of meditation but it is not an objective of practice. Secondly – relaxation is geared directly towards stress-reduction situations whereas meditation is conceived as a way of being to be cultivated regardless of day-to-day circumstances.

The authors explore three major reasons for the incorporation of meditation in higher education: a) the enhancement of cognitive and academic performance, b) management of academic-related stress, and c) the development of the “whole person”. They review empirical evidence that supports each of these domains.

a)      Enhancement of cognitive and academic performance: Successful higher academic performance requires focused attention and quick information processing. The authors review Rani and Rao (2000), Jha et al (2006) and Lazar et al (2005) that have explored the relation between meditational practice and attention enhancement. These studies are limited due to lack of randomization, lack of active control groups, small sample sizes and other. Still, some of them showed significant findings. A number of TM researches are reviewed providing good support of the use of TM to enhance various forms of information processing in students (p. 502). These effects can be obtained with an investment of between 20 to 40 minutes of practice per day carried for 6 months or more in these studies. Hall (1999) examined GPA differences between a concentration meditation group and a control group. After one semester of a weekly session and a home practice the experiment group showed significantly higher GPAs. Such studies however are rather sparse and suffer from various methodological problems according to the authors.

b)      Management of academic-related stress: As Goleman (2006, p. 268) noted, stress “handicaps our abilities for learning, for holding information in working memory, for reacting flexibly and creatively, for focusing attention at will, and for planning and organizing effectively”. In the past four decades meditation has been shown to possibly reduce negative mental health symptoms and enhance psychological well-being (Baer, 2003; Brown et al., 2007; Murphy & Donovan, 1997). The authors review several studies showing that “mindfulness-based training may enhance students’ capacitites to tolerate the stresses of higher education, reflected in self-reported decreases in stress, negative emotion, and other psychological symptoms.” (p. 505)

c)      The development of the “whole person”: As Astin el al (2007, p. 34) write: “while we are justifiably proud of our ‘outer’ development in fields such as science, medicine, technology, and commerce, we have increasingly come to neglect our ‘inner’ development – the sphere of values and beliefs, emotional maturity, moral development, spirituality, and self-understanding”. The authors review research that correlates medtiation with traits concerned with the education of the “whole person”. In this domain they explore creativity, interpersonal intelligence, compassion for self and others, and empathy (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova (2005) and Shapiro et al. (2007) demonstrated significant increases in self-compassion through MBSR participation. These studies however are based on self-report indicating a clear need to develop behavior-based research geared towards the study of interpersonal effects.

Overall: The review conducted here ends with the claim that there is not enough empirical evidence supporting the integration of meditation in education: “Thoughtful, rigorous empirical study is needed to elucidate how, and to what extent, meditation may complement the higher education enterprise” (p. 510). The authors make five recommendations as to how to improve the ways we study meditation in education: 1) Theory-based research, 2) Enhanced research rigor, 3) Expanding the scope of meditation outcomes research, 4) Understanding meditation mechanisms that account for positive effects 5) exploring best practices.

1.      Theory-based investigation: The authors explore four theoretical domains that provide a framework for such research: a) theories of attention, b) meta-cognition, c) transformative learning, and d) models of stress, affect regulation and emotional intelligence.

a.       Attention: involves three primary functions: alering, orienting, and conflict monitoring each supported by unique attention networks in the brain (Posner & Boies, 1971; Posner & Rothbart, 2007; Raz & Buhle, 2006): Alerting – concerns uninterrupted attention to one’s experience. Orienting – effective scanning and selection of information. Conflict monitoring (also called executive attention) – resolves conflicts among competing behavioural responses (p. 511). This can also be conceived as a metacognitive skill. All three forms of attention are invoked in learning and education contexts.

b.      Metacognition: “represents the capacity to be aware of, reflect upon, and exercise control over one’s cognitive processes (Statt, 1998), including those important to learning. Examples of such control efforts include planning the approach to a particular task, monitoring one’s comprehension of material being read or listened to, and evaluating progress toward the completion of learning tasks. Also implicated in metacognition is the ability to monitor or be aware of one’s present knowledge state (i.e., what one knows, what one does not yet understand, what remains to be learned)” (p. 512).

Meditation may also function to increase awareness of one’s habitual thought patterns, including those that may weaken concentration, information retention, and otherwise impede learning. Examples of dysfunctional patterns (beliefs) include “Even if I study hard, I won’t do well on this test,” or “I always do poorly in math.” Since such cognitions often operate outside conscious awareness (i.e., are frequently overlearned and automatic), the capacity to dispute their irrational and sometimes absolute nature (cf., Beck, 1976; Ellis, 1962) rests upon first becoming cognizant of the fact that they are present by making them an object of awareness…A meditative awareness of such cognitive and emotional patterns may afford the opportunity to challenge the veracity of dysfunctional thoughts and adopt alternative perspectives (Segal, Teasdale, & Williams, 2002)” (P. 512).

c.       Transformative learning – Among such theories Jack Mezirow’s theory is concerned with: “developing greater insight into the ways in which assumptions students hold serve to “constrain the way they perceive, understand, and feel about their world” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 167). The recognition of these assumptions allows us to introduce change in these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective,and, finally, make choices or otherwise act upon these new understandings” (p. 167). According to Robert Kegan (1982, 1994) this process of turning subject into object – is a hallmark of human development across the lifespan.

Shapiro et al (2006) refer to “reperceiving” as the process that allows us to lessen identification with our internal cognitive-emotional processes (including beliefs, biases etc).

The authors thus conclude with a clearly positive statement that supports meditation in higher education despite scarce empirical evidence: “By bringing awareness to personal, or idiosyncratic viewpoints, the student may cease to be wholly defined by, and potentially limited by, those viewpoints. This may aid the development of critical thinking skills, including the ability to examine assumptions, discern hidden values, evaluate evidence, and assess conclusions, skills that some consider an indispensable part of training in higher education. Like the proverbial view from the mountain top, meditative awareness is believed to foster the possibility of broadening perspectives, as well as seeing things in new ways, and with greater clarity, so that one’s views are not so deeply colored by memory alone. In this way, meditation may help to further the mission of educational institutions that are committed to helping students develop broader, more inclusive perspectives on themselves, others, and the world, enhancing students’ ability to see beyond their own partial and necessarily limited viewpoints, thereby fostering greater openness to new ideas, knowledge, and insight” (p. 513-514).

d.      Emotional intelligence: Following Gardner’s inter and intrapersonal intelligences, Mayer & Salovey’s and later, Daniel Goleman’s (1995) conception of emotional intelligence, “The inclusion of meditative practices suggests one way to foster the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal (i.e., emotional) intelligence through the cultivation of greater awareness of one’s internal (i.e., cognitive, affective, and somatic) states, with the resulting ability to regulate emotions more effectively” (p. 514). A number of recent researches show that mindfulness is associated with better affect regulation (Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Krietmeyer & Toney (2006), Brown & Ryan (2003)). These include better regulation of emotional reactions, quicker recovery from negative mood states, compared to common regulatory strategies such as distraction and rumination (Broderick, 2005)” (p. 515). The authors identify the mechanism at work here: “the emphasis in such meditative practices is on changing one’s relationship to the contents of awareness (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations) rather than attempting to change or control the content itself, which is not always possible or adaptive” (p. 515). It was found also that mindfulness is inversely related to the tendency to cope with stress through substance abuse (Weinstein, Brown & Ryan, in press).

The authors end by proposing that further research should explore how meditation can foster 1) awareness of one’s emotions, 2) management of one’s emotions, 3) sensitivity to other’s emotions, 4) responding and negotiating with others emotionally.

2.      Enhancing research rigor: They suggest six research design elements that will benefit future research:

a.       Specification of the exact meditative practice employed.

b.      Well-validated and reliable instruments that combine first, second, and third person perspectives.

c.       Use of control groups to solve the problem of correlation. Ideally these control groups should be active ones – that is, given an alternative intervention for comparison.

d.      Use of active control groups caters to the problem of expectancy problems. (While they do not apply the term I take it that they refer to an attempt to minimize the Placebo effect).

e.       Long-term and follow-up research.

f.       Use of large samples and representative groups.

  1. Expansion of meditation outcomes research: The authors suggest that we expand our traditional definitions of education to include development of social, emotional and other forms of intelligence that are relevant to occupational accomplishment, life satisfaction, ethics, and prosocial engagement (p. 518).
  2. Exploring processes that account for positive effects of meditation in education. Attentional refinement, metacognitive skill enhancement, and increased self-regulatory abilities (Baer, 2003; Brown et al., 2007 ; Shapiro et al., 2006) have been proposed as relevant. Further understanding will assist in the refinement of meditative instruction. b) The question of duration of practice. “There may be thresholds above which meditative practice is more likely to show direct effects on outcomes (Shapiro et al., 2007), and effects may be other than the usual linear relations typically examined in research. It will also be important for researchers to study not only quantity of practice time but also quality of time spent in meditation, given the wide variation in subjective experience that is possible in such activity (e.g., from sleep to acute alertness)” (p. 519).
  3. Understanding best practices. We need more knowledge concerned with how to implement practices at the university level, touching upon considerations of separating the religious aspects of meditation, teacher’s expertise and other.

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