Researchers Probe Contemplative Topics

July 10, 2015

Scientific and public interest in the impact of contemplative practice has rapidly grown, generating an abundance of questions about meditation, yoga and similar traditions.

To serve as a forum for dialogue between scientists and practitioners, University of Arizona graduate students of psychology Tucker Peck and Autumn Wiley-Hill in 2008 founded the Arizona Meditation Research Interest Group, or AMRIG, to promote interest in interdisciplinary meditation research and dissemination of meditation-related findings to the UA community.

AMRIG, a graduate-student-led organization of the UA consisting of faculty and students, as well as members of the Tucson community at large, seeks to answer a range of questions, such as:

  • What can these practices reveal about human neurobiology, human behavior or the nature of consciousness?
  • What are the implications of these practices for clinical science or education?
  • How can traditional contemplative practices add to our understanding of modern science?

Since AMRIG's inception, more than a half-dozen graduate students in the UA Department of Psychology have conducted dissertation research on topics related to contemplative science, with six of these students receiving funding for their work through the Mind and Life Institute's Varela Award.

Wiley-Hill received a Francisco J. Varela Award to fund her research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on self-control failure. This work has led to several local presentations, including one at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, and also dissertation research on attention bias modification. Wiley-Hill is finalizing her work for publication.

Peck's research focuses on how meditation affects the sleeping brain, as well as short-term and long-term changes in brain waves associated with meditation. His research also was funded by a Varela Award and is under review for publication.

Deanna Kaplan, AMRIG’s president and a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, investigates the processes and outcomes associated with practicing meditation in people's everyday lives. Kaplan has presented preliminary findings about the behavioral manifestations of mindfulness at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. She also is developing a smartphone app in collaboration with the organization HopeLab that will enable research about the immediate and cumulative effects of different kinds of contemplative practices on mood and state of mind.  

Deanna Kaplan (Photo: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)

Clinical psychology doctoral student Angelina Polsinelli is studying the cognitive, emotional and functional associations of mindfulness in older adults. Polsinelli also is developing an objective measure of mindfulness, a project funded by the Mind and Life Institute's 1440 award. Polsinelli was the 2015 recipient of AMRIG's Marlatt-Salzberg Travel Grant Competition. The annual competition assists students and early-career scholars in pursuit of the scientific study of contemplative practice. Named for G. Alan Marlatt and Sharon Salzberg, whose speaking engagements supported the grant, the award funds the recipient's attendance at an academic conference related to contemplative science. The competition is open to students, postdocs, staff and alumni of all Arizona state universities.  

Lindsey Knowles is a clinical psychology student working with assistant professor of psychology Mary-Frances O'Connor in the Grief Loss and Social Stress Lab. Knowles recently received a Varela Award to use a mindfulness-based intervention to study yearning and grief-specific rumination as mediators of grief outcomes in bereaved individuals. 

Early on, AMRIG hosted speakers from the local community and its board members prepared presentations for the group.

AMRIG's core aim is to continue to support contemplative science research on campus by providing a forum for sharing ideas with UA researchers as well as teachers and practitioners in the Tucson community. The group continues to sponsor lecture and discussion events, and it also offers on-campus secular meditation classes.

With growing and consistent attendance, AMRIG has branched out to invite speakers and teachers from beyond Tucson. Speakers address a breadth of subjects relevant to the cross-fertilization of modern science and contemplative practice. They include established professionals as well as students who come to present their research ideas for interdisciplinary feedback.

On July 19, the group will host a daylong workshop, "Equanimity: The Balance Born of Wisdom,” with Sharon Salzberg, a writer and meditation teacher and also co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The workshop will help ground the practice of equanimity, which can be experienced as a spacious relationship with impermanence, through discussion and guided meditation. Salzberg is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and is the author of several books, including the New York Times best-seller "Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation."

Al Kaszniak, the recently retired head of the UA Department of Psychology, speaks at an AMRIG event during the spring semester of 2015. (Photo Beatriz Verdugo)

Also, AMRIG offers a six-week "Introduction to Mindfulness" course each semester, taught by group board member Blake Ashley (Kaishin), who also teaches meditation for the Tucson Community Meditation Center, the city of Tucson and Pima County Employee Wellness Programs. AMRIG co-sponsors the UA Student Wellness Conference, a series of presentations and workshops designed to introduce University students to secular meditation, yoga and breathing practices, as well as the scientific research behind such practices.

As interest in contemplative science and its role in education grows at the UA, AMRIG hopes to provide other forums for discussing and building ideas and sharing findings. AMRIG’s connections to the Tucson community position it well to serve in this role. 

Deanna Kaplan is a doctoral student in the UA Department of Psychology. Kaplan also serves as president of the Arizona Meditation Research Interest Group. Autumn Wiley-Hill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology and co-founder of AMRIG. To learn more about AMRIG or to get involved, visit the group's website or Facebook page. Also, email azmeditationresearch@gmail.com with a request to be added to the group's listserv.