Until recently, there weren’t many books on this subject, but in the past few decades there’s been an explosion of interest in the subject. In fact, there are so many such books that it’s difficult to make a selection. With this list we’ve tried to not only present the most prominent books, but also tried to include offer books from varying perspectives.
1.) “Your Brain on Yoga” by Sat Bir Khalsa:
This brief Harvard Medical School Guide presents findings on the effects of yoga on the mind and body. Strictly speaking, it’s not exclusively about meditation as it considers yoga practices that one wouldn’t necessarily label meditative. The studies presented include both Dr. Khalsa’s own research as well as those of others. (Dr. Khalsa is a Professor of Medicine at Harvard as well as a Kundalini Yoga practitioner.) The book presents findings on the effects of yoga on: stress, common physical ailments, creativity and intelligence, and depression and mood disorders. While this book won’t necessarily help one evaluate the effects of a specific practice, it does at least offer an overview of the various types of yoga so that one has some insight into what was being tested in the various studies.
2.) “Siddhartha’s Brain” by James Kingsland:
This book is written by a journalist and that results in the pros and cons one might expect. On the pro side, Kingsland knows how to use story and style to write in a way that is both interesting and readable for a general readership. As far as cons go, while he is a science writer, he has less expertise in science, meditation, or both than most of the authors on this list (who are otherwise scientists who actively investigated this subject, often with long term meditative practices of their own.) Kingsland uses the life story of the Buddha as a way to capture attention and maintain interest. He connects up age-old Buddhist practices with the science that has been coming to support it.
3.) “The Relaxation Response” by Herbert Benson, M.D.:
This is one of the first books written at the intersection of science and meditation. The titular focus, “the relaxation response,” counters the well-known “fight or flight” mechanism, and it can be activated through meditative practices.
The book was written at a time when there was a great resistance in the scientific and medical community to studying meditative practices. Dr. Benson was on faculty at the Harvard Medical School and was doggedly pursued by the students of a well-known Transcendental Meditation guru to study the effect of the practice on health outcomes. Against the advice that it might be the death of his career, Benson finally took on the study, finding that patients who were taught meditation did show better health outcomes. His follow-up studies demonstrated that it wasn’t just the Transcendental Meditation of a particular guru that could help.
4.) “The Science of Meditation” (also sold under the title “Altered Traits”) by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson:
Goleman and Davidson are each both scientists and long-time meditators. Goleman is most well known for his popular books on emotional intelligence, as well as for being a long-time science contributor to the New York Times. Davidson is Chair of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, and is most famous for his neuroscientific investigations into the brains of extremely advanced meditators (many with tens of thousands of hours of meditation.)
The original title, “Altered Traits,” was meant to address a focus on long-term / permanent changes seen in meditators. (As opposed to the term “Altered States [of Consciousness]” which refers to a momentary state of mind that can be induced by any number of causes such as: lucid dreaming, hypnosis, spiritual ecstasy, psychoactive substances, etc.)
5.) “The Monastery and the Microscope” by the Dalai Lama:
The current Dalai Lama (the 14th) has been a huge supporter of the scientific investigation of the mind, consciousness, and the mysteries of the universe. This book consists of a dialogue between the religious leader and many prominent scientists working in the fields of quantum physics, neuroscience, philosophy, and clinical psychology.
The book is divided into three parts. The first explores questions of matter and the mind, and is itself divided into two parts: 1.) Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality and 2.) Consciousness and the Nature of the Mind. The second part is about neuroscience and neuroplasticity, the latter being the way in which the brain can be changed over the course of a lifetime. The final part is on Contemplative practice in the world.
Bonus Book: For those who are seeking more scientific depth in a book, “Zen and the Brain” by James H. Austin is such a text. This book delves into much more detail into the neuroscientific nuances than any of the preceding books. It’s also focused on Zen Buddhist practices as that is the author’s meditational background.
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