Home All Promises of Contemplative Science: Plasticity and Aging Well

Promises of Contemplative Science: Plasticity and Aging Well

written by Jan Stanley 27 March 2015

Jan Stanley, MAPP '10, was a director of learning systems and leadership development before leaving the corporate world to create her own map of a road less taken. Jan's focus is now squarely on her passion of applying positive psychology through the use of poetry, mindfulness, collaboration, and ritual, woven together into ceremonies of well-being. Jan served as a facilitator for the U.S. Army Master Resilience Training program. She is a faculty member of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, where she teaches others about the beauty and benefits of ceremony. Full bio. Jan's articles are here.

My heart is full as I review my notes from the Mind & Life International Symposium for Contemplative Studies 2014 (ISCS), which took place in Boston from October 30 to November 2 last year. I feel my shoulders relax, my breathing deepen, and my lips gently smiling.

Why do I describe these sensations so precisely? I do it because the field of contemplative studies is about noticing, about being mindfully aware. Contemplative practices are activities that engage us in deep observation or reflection. Meditation has been a centerpiece of the research, but the field also includes other contemplative practices such as writing, yoga, reading, and storytelling.

Here’s a link to the keynotes and master lectures of ISCS 2014 available on Youtube.

ISCS was a beautiful mix of opportunities to learn about the scientific study of contemplative practices and to experience the practices themselves. Today and Monday, I will highlight two of the scientific presentations that I attended. In a third article, I will discuss contemplative practices and share one in detail, along with steps to practice it on your own.

Heightened Interest in Contemplative Science

The field is booming! Al Kaszniak, a scientist from the University of Arizona, reports that there is a 300 percent increase in studies published in contemplative science in 2005-2010, compared to the previous five year period, 2000-2005. Why is this so?

One word: neuroscience. Advances in brain scanning technology now show which areas of our brains correspond to specific activities and how our brains can change after experiencing interventions. Brain scans are an exciting new measure, but not a panacea, and for that reason, brain scans are not the only measure being used in contemplative science.

Physiological markers are also being measured, including hormones like cortisol (a stress marker), telomere length (cellular aging), and glycation (when glucose weakens DNA). These are combined with psychological measures such as life satisfaction, mood, and emotion regulation in ways that offer new insight.

Another word: plasticity. Advances in our understanding of the brain’s ability to change allow for promising explorations into how to wire our brains for well-being as individuals and as societies.

What steps can we each take to leverage our brain’s plasticity for increased joy and meaning in our lives? This is one of the big questions that scientists are investigating through the study of contemplative practices and their effects on our brains.

The combination of this new technology and an unprecedented increase in research is cause for excitement about what can be learned next and how quickly. It is equally cause for careful design of experiments and enhanced rigor. As with any scientific endeavor, the need for sound methods and accurate interpretation of data is paramount. Scientists expressed this need for caution and rigor many times throughout the conference. There is a need for focus on good scientific methods, even when early results are promising.

Contemplative Science for Aging Populations

Al Kaszniak began his presentation Aging and Meditation: Evidence from Cognitive, Affective and Neuroscience with high-level comments about the increasing body of work in this area. Aging brains are more plastic than once thought, offering a promising landscape for using meditation interventions with this population.

Kaszniak describes older brains as sticky. One measure of this is attentional blink, or the act of returning to a task once distracted. Slagter and colleagues have explored the possibility that sticky brains require more effort once an attentional blink has occurred to return to task. VanLeeuwan and colleagues have found that meditators return to task more easily than non-meditators, regardless of age. Kaszniak advises older adults to try a variety of meditation practices, especially those that include things like “coming back to your breath,” which may combat stickiness with enhanced connectivity, as shown by the research of Hasenkamp and colleagues.

Kaszniak presented brief overviews of others’ research with meditation in aging populations. In addition to staying on task longer, Creswell and colleagues have found that older people experienced a decrease in loneliness and associated inflammation after brief meditation training. Epstein-Lubow’s study indicates that meditation training for dementia patient care givers increased their subjective well being and physiological health. Kaszniak says that meditation training holds great promise for aging populations, but that more research is needed to validate and replicate these early findings.

He ended his session by saying that if he had been asked ten years ago if meditation could slow the progression of dementia, he would have answered with a clear and resounding, “No.” Today, however, with so much promising research, Kaszniak sees it as an open question. Meditation is one important avenue worthy of further exploration.

I will be back Monday with an exploration of studies on compassion and creating a more caring society.


Creswell, J.D., et al. (2012). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and proinflammatory gene expression in older adults: A small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 26, 1095-1101. Abstract.

Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S. and Blackburn, E. (2009), Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172: 34–53. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x Abstract.

Epstein-Lubow, et al. (2011). A pilot investigation of mindfulness-based stress reduction for caregivers of frail elderly. Mindfulness, 2, 95–102. Abstract and preview.

O’Donnell, R., Kaszniak, A. W., & Menchola, M. (2010). Evaluating mindfulness-based stress reduction for older family caregivers of persons with neurocognitive disorders. Poster presented at the annual Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, Garrison, NY.

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L.W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, doi: 10.3389/fnhum. 2012.00038. Abstract.

Kaszniak A. L. (2011). Meditation, mindfulness, cognition, and emotion: Implications for community-based older adult programs. In P. E. Hartman-Stein .& A.La Rue (Eds.), Enhancing Cognitive Fitness in Adults: A Guide to the Use and Development of Community-Based Programs. New York: Springer.

Kaszniak, A.W., & Menchola, M. (2012). Behavioral neuroscience of emotion in aging. Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 51-66. Abstract.

Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893–1897. Abstract.

Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A.,, Greischar, L.L., Francis, A. Nieuwenhuis,, S., Davis, J.M., & Davidson, R.J. (2007). Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PLoS Biology, 5 (6), e138. Doi:10.1317/ journal.pbio.0050138.

Van Leeuwen, S., Muller, N.G., & Melloni, L. (2009). Age effects on attentional blink performance in meditation. Consciousness and Cognition, 18, 593-599. Abstract.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Brain view via fMRI courtesy of Mohan P J
3-d model of neural growth… courtesy of jurvetson
Vibrant old age courtesy of Julien Haler

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Judy Krings 27 March 2015 - 6:22 pm

Great article, Jan. I am thanking my plasticity-appreciating brain after all these almost 66 years for still happily (I hope) ticking away like the proverbial Timex watch. Contemplative training is free for the feeling-doing and I am thrilled science is leading the way to greater well-being and peace. Thanks much.

Jan Stanley 27 March 2015 - 7:05 pm


You are oh-so-right about contemplative practices being free to access at any time. What a great point! I, too, was inspired by the enthusiasm of the scientists researching meditation and aging brains. Thanks so much for your comment. You are a shining example of flourishing in your sixties!

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 27 March 2015 - 7:34 pm

This is great Jan – looking forward to more!

Jan Stanley 27 March 2015 - 7:55 pm

Thanks so much, Lisa! It was a great conference with so much ground covered. That made it difficult to decide which sessions to highlight. A good problem, for sure. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

Judy Krings 28 March 2015 - 6:32 am

Thanks for your kindness and generosity, Jan. HOPE springs eternal…and now we know we have the capability to keep our brains out of the sticky wickets, at least to some extent. As if Lisa, I am excited for your next excerpt. Happy Spring.

Carol Preibis 30 September 2015 - 1:08 pm

Hello Jan,

Thanks so much for this article.

I’ve referenced it in my blog post “Rewire Your Brain for a Better Life”

Wishing you well,

Jan Stanley 30 September 2015 - 3:31 pm

Thank you for letting me know how you’ve used my article, Carol. I appreciate that, and love the comprehensive article you’ve written and shared! I have shared your Rewire post on both my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

It only takes a minute to acknowledge our sources, but it sure makes a big difference in building connections and broadening support for the ideas that we find compelling. Thanks again!



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