One of the challenges of the scientific study of religion is to avoid reducing religion into only one of its parts. Evolutionary models suggest that religion may have helped early societies address the problem of people benefiting from the group’s resources without also contributing; but is religion’s only function to prevent free-riders? Psychological studies suggest that specific types of religious belief relate to our health; but if you focus solely on those findings, what parts of religion do you lose sight of? Do we risk ignoring some essential features of the very thing we hope to study?
The psychologist David DeSteno, at Northeastern University, is attuned to these concerns and designed a clever study to augment our understanding of meditation. In a recent piece for the New York Times , he explains that his motivation stemmed from a concern that meditation studies focus on certain effects of meditation, but may lose sight of the heart of meditation. As he explains, the goal of meditation is not simply to enhance individual performance; it’s “supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”
So he tested whether meditation really does fulfill its stated purpose: does meditation make people more compassionate? The results point pretty strongly towards “yes.” The experiment tracked whether participants would offer their seat, the only available seat, to a woman on crutches who entered the waiting room and sighed in pain. Only 16% of the non-meditating control group offered their seat, while 50% of the meditators offered theirs.
Precisely why meditation would lead to compassion remains an open question. Some point to the increased levels of attention as a possible link. DeSteno argues that meditation has the “ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected.” Perhaps meditation builds an individual’s self-empathy, which then might extend more easily to others. Regardless of the cause, it’s heartening to see research that takes religion seriously in the claims it makes about itself, while at the same time trusting that science has the means to test those claims.