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Like many human activities, meditation has been with us for thousands of years, in a great many disparate societies. From naturalistic origins, it has been refined into a multitude of forms, all with a common theme: the application of mental attention to a simple stimulus, with a resulting calming of the mind and body.
Why do people meditate? Observation suggests that meditation serves important physiological and mental purposes. Meditators have long claimed positive health effects relating to relaxation. Scientific studies of meditation are obviously needed to validate and explain these benefits. This book is intended as a brief introduction, for the interested lay person or healthcare professional, to some current issues in research on meditation.
Meditation research is coming of age. The field is not dominated by alternative medicine. Leading mainstream journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences are publishing studies on the physiological mechanisms and health effects of meditation. The annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience incorporate presentations on meditation, and leading neuroscience textbooks include the topic. Recently, scientific research on meditation has been the subject of an extensive, evidence-based review, requested by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Ospina et al., 2007).
These developments are taking place in spite of the fact that the field is poorly funded. No pharmaceutical companies support studies on meditation and no large patient groups demand them. Rather, as is often the case in new areas of scientific research, progress is largely driven by individual researchers with a personal interest in the topic.
The contributors to this book are all scientists or healthcare professionals who practise Acem Meditation. Some of the articles focus explicitly on Acem Meditation, while others have a broad, general scope. Our aim has been to provide the interested public with accessible information on what scientific studies can tell us about the effects of meditating.
As new research methods emerge, the focus of such studies changes. In the early stages of meditation research, the main focus was on easily measurable effects of meditation, for example, on heart rate and blood pressure. During the last decade, innovations in brain scanning techniques have directed attention to brain function during meditation. In the future, there is potential for long-term studies of changes in brain function in people practising meditation over several years. This may pave the way for scientific studies of personality development and biological changes at the synaptic level.