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Mareike Smolka

The Meditating Brain in Context: An Exploration of Ethics in Action in Neuroscientific Meditation Research

Neuroscientific research provides evidence for meditation affecting the brain and improving health, well-being, and cognitive performance. The Silver Santé Study, a large-scale European Horizon 2020 clinical trial, investigates the benefits of meditation for the elderly. Study participants who meditate, learn the English language, or do not engage in any particular activity over a period of eighteen months undergo a number of neuroscientific measurements in order to investigate which lifestyle choices are beneficial for healthy ageing. Research that demonstrates the beneficial effects of meditation has contributed to the positive reputation of the practice. Meditation has been advertised as a natural remedy and has even been introduced as a “green approach to sustainable enhancement” in a talk on “meditation practice and an ethic of brain friendly modulation” during the Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society in 2015.

Despite this suggested “greenness” of meditation and its research, reflections on ethical challenges should not be neglected. Ethical challenges may be related to the wider societal implications of such research. These may comprise the institutionalisation of meditation to reach productivity targets, the responsibilisation of the elderly for preventing their cognitive decline, or the promotion of an essentialist idea of culture when comparing experienced meditators from a variety of socio-cultural backgrounds to a Western, educated, and affluent group of research participants who learn how to meditate during a study intervention. Ethics also play out in the research process and daily work practices. Whenever a decision needs to be made, values and considerations are weighed against each other. What counts as “ethical” or “unethical” is not fixed but fluid; it is situational and contextual.

I explore how ethics unfold in action, how they change over time, and how they are entangled with work practices, institutional constraints, material conditions in the laboratory, and other stakeholders’ concerns in the Silver Santé Study. Understanding ethics in action serves a dual purpose that combines knowledge production about and practice improvement within the Silver Santé Study. For this purpose, I conduct qualitative interviews with those involved in the study. The aim is to make interviewees question their assumptions, widen the considerations they take into account when making decisions, and acknowledge the creative practices that they have already developed to navigate between tensions encountered in daily routine. In this way, stimulating ethical reflections may turn out to be beneficial for those I engage with in the Silver Santé Study.

Walking the middle path between ethnographic knowledge production and intervention, I contribute to the body of work that has been realised under the label “Responsible Research and Innovation”, in short RRI. Since the turn of the millennium, academics and policy makers have developed the concept to make research and development more ‘responsible’. RRI projects aim to include a broad spectrum of stakeholders in ethical reflection and decision-making processes in scientific research and technological innovation. I hope to pursue this ideal by stimulating ethical reflections in interviews with a diversity of stakeholders, ranging from scientists, engineers, physicians, meditation and English instructors, to administrators, research funders, journalists, etc. In this way, my research puts RRI into practice in the Silver Santé Study and will result in suggestions for how to advance RRI in other projects.

Mareike Smolka studied sociology and philosophy at University College Maastricht in the Netherlands (2012-2015). She included a semester of studying fine arts at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago de Chile in her Bachelor’s degree. Afterwards, she specialised in Science and Technology Studies in a research master programme (2015-2017) at University Maastricht (UM) which entailed a research internship at the Centre for Literary and Cultural Research Berlin (ZfL). Since her studies, Mareike has been a scholarship holder of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes), which also funded her PhD project. Her PhD project was supervised by Prof. Cyrus Mody (UM), Prof. Cornelius Borck (Institut für Medizingeschichte und Wissenschaftsforschung), and Dr. Darian Meacham (UM). She completed her PhD during a Fulbright research stay at Arizona State University in the United States. Since August 2022, Mareike has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Human Technology Center at RWTH Aachen University, where she has engaged in transdisciplinary collaborations to facilitate the development of socially responsive and ethically responsible technologies. Next to her research, Mareike has served as an editorial assistant of the Journal of Responsible Innovation since 2020.



  • Smolka, M. (2022). Making epistemic goods compatible: knowledge‐making practices in a lifestyle intervention RCT on mindfulness and compassion meditation, BioSocieties, DOI: 10.1057/s41292-022-00272-w
  • Smolka, M. (2021). Why Does Controversy Persist? Paradigm Clash, Conflicting Visions, and Academic Productivity in the Aesthetics of Religion, Science as Culture, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2021.1918077
  • Smolka, M., Fisher E., and Hausstein, S. (2020). From Affect to Action: Choices in Attending to Disconcertment in Interdisciplinary Collaborations, Science, Technology, & Human Values, DOI: 10.1177/0162243920974088
  • Smolka, M. (2020). Generative Critique in Interdisciplinary Collaborations: From Critique of and in the Neurosciences to Socio-Technical Integration Research as a Practice of Critique in R(R)I. Nanoethics, 14, 1, p. 1-19. DOI: 10.1007/s11569-019-00362-3
  • Smolka, M. (September, 2019). Towards better science and modesty in the Cognitive Science of Religion and Contemplative Science? (Sonderausgabe: Religionsästhetik), Verkündigung und Forschung, 64, 2, p. 142-150. ISSN: 0342-2410.

Complete list of publications: