The Meditating Brain in Context: Eliciting Ethical Reflections in Neuroscientific Meditation Research

Smolka, M. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation (speaker at event)Talk or presentationAcademic


Neurophysiological measurements render evidence for meditation affecting the brain and improving health and well-being. The ancient religious practice integrates smoothly in a scientifically informed, neoliberal culture where it is sold as a therapeutic product. This poses ethical challenges: the risk of side effects when meditating, the cost-benefit ratio of investing public money in large-scale meditation research, and the introduction of meditation to the workplace to enhance employees’ productivity. Finally, comparing “the Buddhist brain” to “the secular brain” in research and media essentializes cultural differences which promotes a simplified understanding of culture and humanness.

Ranging from unequivocal risks to cultural impacts that are harder to acknowledge and anticipate, these ethical challenges are similar to those addressed in other fields by “Responsible Research and Innovation” (RRI). Introduced in academia and politics in the 21st century, RRI aims at the establishment of a democratic process including all stakeholders to engage in ethical reflections and decision-making on how research and innovation should be directed and conducted. Yet, RRI’s implementation faces problems. An inclusive and democratic process of ethical reflection and decision-making cannot be realized if the fluidity of stakeholder groups and ethical reflections remains disregarded. As stakeholder groups form and re-form based on actors’ changing associations, who counts as a stakeholder requires constant inquiry. Similarly, ethical reflections are fluid, first, because they co-evolve with scientific and other social practices in research, and, second, because they are rhetorically enacted. What stakeholders present as “ethical” or “unethical” is not fixed, but depends on the goals they want to realize with their speech and on how they position themselves in relation to others.

I explore the fluidity of stakeholder groups and ethical reflections in the Silver Santé Study, currently Europe’s biggest neuroscientific meditation research project on the impact of meditation on healthy aging. I conduct ethnographic research in the project, which entails participant observation during four months of fieldwork, about 40 qualitative interviews with various stakeholders, and the analysis of documents authored by stakeholders. I subject the data to a discourse analysis of how language is recruited in specific contexts to realize a speaker’s intention (language as action) while negotiating his/her relationship with others (language as affiliation). This enables me to answer these research questions: How have stakeholder groups evolved in the Silver Santé Study? How do stakeholders enact ethical reflections on neuroscientific meditation research in oral and written discourse? How do stakeholders’ ethical reflections co-evolve with research and other social practices? What does all of this imply for steering neuroscientific meditation research in a responsible manner?

Unpacking the fluidity of stakeholder groups and ethical reflections allows me to critically understand ethical challenges of neuroscientific meditation research. Such a critical understanding is meant to be constructive. Its relevance extends into two directions: one is to help realize the ideal of RRI, that is, rendering neuroscientific meditation research more responsible; the other is to develop recommendations for improving RRI’s implementation in concrete research projects.
Period13 Sep 2018
Event titleResponsible Research & Innovation and Future Making: Responsibility through Anticipation: Interdisciplinary International Graduate Summer School
Event typeCourse
LocationDonostia‐San Sebastian, Spain