Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds

Meditation is no miracle cure as many new agers, yogis, and gurus might try to lead you to believe.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore published results of a meta-study of 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants. The study was released Jan. 6, 2014 in the Journal of American Medical Association.

The researchers concluded that meditation provided little to no benefits when compared with other treatments. In fact, the researchers said meditation provided no more benefit than traditional treatments for anxiety and depression, such as prescription drugs, exercise, and napping or relaxation techniques.

Monks. Licensed through Creative Commons
Monks, photo by Stefano Liboni

Clinical data was used, from the studies, to measure patient outcomes from mindfulness meditation and mantra or Transcendental meditation programs. Mindfulness meditation typically focuses the participant on awareness of the present moment, watching the breath or the thoughts without judgement. Whereas mantra meditation consists primarily of mentally repeating a simple phrase or mantra.

The mindfulness meditation programs showed slight effectiveness towards alleviating stress in patients with anxiety. Whereas mantra meditation showed no benefits. Many publications, in their reviews of the study, hyped the benefits of meditation but failed to point out that only uncontrolled trials showed slight to moderate benefits from meditation. While the controlled trials showed participants who meditated had no better results than a control group who only used exercise, drugs, or sleep for treatment. While meditation may offer benefits, we could more easily take a nap to ward off stress and stay healthy!

The Wall Street Journal’s Lindsay Gellman reviewed the study.

“Although uncontrolled studies have usually found a benefit of meditation, very few controlled studies have found a similar benefit for the effects of meditation programs on health-related behaviors affected by stress,” the JAMA report said.

The report’s findings show that meditation is perhaps less effective in alleviating stress-related symptoms than is widely believed, [my emphasis] said Allan H. Goroll, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital, in invited commentary also published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine. “The studies overall failed to show much benefit from meditation with regard to relief of suffering or improvement in overall health, with the important exception that mindfulness meditation provided a small but possibly meaningful degree of relief from psychological distress,” he wrote.

untitled, photo by Jean Christophe Prunet
untitled, photo by Jean Christophe Prunet

Still, Dr. Goroll noted that participants only received 30 to 40 hours of training in meditation, which could indicate that “meditation is a skill that takes time to master.” He also said more evidence is needed to draw more robust conclusions about any benefits to meditation. The study participants were enrolled for a duration of 8 weeks to several years. A longer time period may be required to see the benefits of meditation.

I agree with the researchers. Knowing what I know from my 20 years practice of Kriya Yoga meditation, as taught by Self-Realization Fellowship, the benefits gained from sleep, exercise, or relaxation are about the same as from meditation. Strip away the supernatural or god-myth from meditation practice and what’s left is profound relaxation and internal awareness. Nice benefits, to be sure, but do the benefits outweigh the effort of meditation?

Gellman finishes with:
“People come to a meditation class because they’re suffering in some way,” said Jon Aaron, an instructor at New York Insight Meditation Center, which promotes mindfulness meditation. Through meditation, they learn to relate to their stress in a way that is more productive, he said.

You can read the full JAMA study here via PDF.
Or, the abstract (brief) here.

15 comments

  1. Scott

    @Brent: I am with you and agree with your explanations and examples. Thanks for your comments. Appreciate that you took the time.

  2. Brent

    Scott, Thanks for your thoughts. Maybe I should not have used the word “works”. What I am saying is that in a small, very small, number of cases placebos seem to work. I am not saying that the placebo itself “works”. In a small number of cases, there is a documented “placebo effect”. This “placebo effect” is being seriously scientifically studied. Here is one example:
    http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/01/the-placebo-phenomenon

    Note in the article” But researchers have found that placebo treatments—interventions with no active drug ingredients—can stimulate real physiological responses, from changes in heart rate and blood pressure to chemical activity in the brain, in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even some symptoms of Parkinson’s.”

    I am not saying that something “magic” happens. It doesn’t. Something happens to the mind, then it has affects on the body. There are more heart attacks on Mondays. Is it because something “magic” happens? no: Have a look: http://www.drsinatra.com/heart-attack-risk-factors-rise-on-mondays/
    I think mind/body connection is fairly well documented.

    I like your response to my expert meditator argument. I think it’s solid. Further I think that for a meditation study to get our attention it should state (and you make this point) that meditation produced effects that could not be attained in any other way. (e.g. music, cycling, beer, sex…etc.) I think that most experiences that people report can be explained by natural phenomenon. But they cannot be easily explained. I think this is because it is in someone else’s head. Hence it’s easy to start building myths. Very easy. If I said “God sent an angel last night and left a blue shirt in my closet”, it can be explained. It just can’t be easily explained. I may assert “I would know if I already had a blue shirt!”. “Trust me I didn’t have one!. ” “How did it get there then?” (Unbeknownst to me my Wife’s/Girlfriends lover accidently left it there.) So it remains a mystery! And cannot be easily explained.
    Thanks for “listening”, Brent

  3. Scott

    @Brent: You say “psychic surgeries and shaman practices work for some people. They do actually work (for a few people)”. What do you mean “work”? Do they remove cancers or what do you mean work? I grant that these practices may relieve pain, provide temporary comfort or relief, for some people.

    “Expert” meditators might be able to relax or do some interesting things. So can some people going in and out of various sleep states, floatation tanks, and hallucinogenic experiences.

    What is it about meditation that makes it more “special” than the many other practices or states that a person may experience? What about all the “brain scans” that show listening to music, sex, or sleep (a billion other things, like cycling, skiing, skydiving and on and on…) produces interesting, anomalous brain waves and ecstatic experiences in practitioners who are “expert”?

    After I stopped being a meditation apologist I saw through my rationalizing and fallacious arguments trying to make meditative practices “special”, spiritual beyond other practices. If meditation pleases you, go for it. Just realize you are probably kidding yourself that there’s something special, magical, or mystical about the idealized, promised results.

  4. Brent

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve thought about packaging a drug that has well-founded proof that it cures a huge number of different kinds of diseases. There are countless scientific studies that show its effectiveness. I would sell placebos. True it is not nearly effective as other treatments but it does work for a few people with an enormous variety of ailments. There is no doubt to the placebo effect. That’s why psychic surgeries and shaman practices work for some people. They do actually work (for a few people. )

    But I would like to make a point that many of the studies you cite use people who are taught meditation specifically for the study. These are novice meditators. There is clear scientific evidence that meditative results are “progressive” . They build over time practiced. Here’s an example of a study that measures “expert” meditators.

    http://meditation-research.org.uk/2013/07/advanced-tibetan-buddhist-meditation-practice-raises-body-temperature/

    http://meditation-research.org.uk/2013/07/advanced-tibetan-buddhist-meditation-practice-raises-body-temperature-part-2/

    Here’s another example of an expert meditator and scientific “proof” that he can produce brain waves that are “off the chart”.
    http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-be-happier-according-to-matthieu-ricard-the-worlds-happiest-man-2016-1
    Your reflection on these points is greatly appreciated.
    Cheers, Brent

  5. Scott

    @Brent: The meta-study discusses the “drugs” treatments. The JAMA meta-study cited refers, if I remember correctly, anti-depressants for treatment of clinical depression. Meditation is overrated. It may help some people, but so may sleep, exercise, or drugs. If meditation helps you go for it. If someone is selling you that meditation is a magical cure, and can’t explain what is it’s active ingredients or mechanism for reducing pain then what is it that make it better than a placebo or any other treatment?

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Brent

    Hi Scott,

    The statement ” participants who meditated had no better results than a control group who only used exercise, drugs, or sleep for treatment.” is problematic. Specifically “drugs”. What are we talking about here, weed? alcohol? heroin? antidepressants? blood pressure meds?

    I would think that medical professionals would prefer their patients to try meditation before prescription drugs. But they have been beaten up by patients who demand a script of the Doctor hasn’t done their job. To further complicate it, they have no real training in alternatives to drugs. Even if they did, how many patients will make life changes like diet, exercise and meditation? A few, yes, but not many.

    Cheers!

  7. SkepticMeditations

    @Fred: Keep in mind that all meditation schools believe their techniques and teachings are unique: and are the “best”, the “highest”, the “most powerful”. This is human nature–to believe whatever we are involved in is the “best”.

    Imagery, visualization, or mental controls play prominently in meditation techniques. All claim they are the best.

    Whatever one believes is going to help, and is reinforced by a group, teacher, or teaching will likely provide some perceived benefits. Often placebos (sham treatments of sugar pills or saline solutions) temporarily provide benefits (like reduce pain).

    Indoctrination in false premises that there’s some absolute truth “out there” or “in here (inside/soul, in meditation)” are typical of meditation teachers. Unfalsifiable, empty promises that require disciples to stay reliant on the teacher for verification of self, experience, and “truth”. Dangerous, the more one trusts and surrenders to the teacher/teachings…

    I recommend you read my post Duped by meditation?

    Check back here and share your thoughts or questions after you are able to read, ask and question the underlying premises noted above and in the post. Thanks

  8. Fred

    Hi Scott, I find your ideas very interesting and inline with the way I think. I have been practising Falun Dafa meditation on and off for 15 years. Before that I did Tai Chi for a few months, went to a couple of different charismatic churches, Mahikari and other meditation (TM, Vipassana). I am thoroughly convinced that Falun Dafa is more powerful/effective than other types of meditation or religions.
    I would like to see studies on our practitioners, hope that will show more significant improvements than general meditation, and may try to do some myself. We are told that our meditation is unique because all others focus the attention on an image but ours only uses our awareness but that seems to match your description of mindfulness meditation; can you please tell me which techniques this refers to and do they all have absolutely no imagery used or intentional direction of the mind?
    Another reason to answer your question of motivation is the culture, we have many parades, events where we can meet the other practitioners, who are quality and friendly people, and an opera show that is seen by 1 million people around the world each year.
    On the other hand, sometimes I have doubts about some of the claims they make, and they way they don’t answer hard questions, or even try to make out you are not in line with the practise for not ‘believing’, but when I came back, on the balance I thought the benefits, even if they may be partly subjective, outweigh that aspect.
    Maybe << there is no such thing as ‘absolute truth’ >> and we create the universe with our beliefs, if this is true then I am happy with what I have. If that <<>> is true then it is not true, so logically there must be an absolute truth, but I am not confident that is so. This is what I think they mean when they say in our practise that thoughts become a substance in another dimension.

  9. SkepticMeditations

    @Litull Fooch: I agree. Studies from medicine or science fields do not give us absolute “truth”.

    Scientific findings are contingent and subject to revision. Whereas religious or spiritual “truths” which are supposedly eternal, absolute, and unquestionable or non falsifiable.

    Through scientific method researchers don’t try to create evidence for their favorite theories. Contrary to what lots of people seem to think that’s what they are doing. The scientific enterprise is really about disconfirmation. It’s not confirmation.

    I’m confident that Kahneman or Wilson would not take a leap of faith (that I think you are doing) that navel gazing or meditation is some special doorway into unlocking the mysteries of the mind and actual reality. That is however what most spiritual teachers want us to believe so they can sells what we want to buy: comfort, control, and magical thinking in an unpredictable world.

    Meditation itself is not the problem. It’s our expectations of meditation practices that I think are problematic, even harmful.

  10. Litull Fooch

    Not in defense of meditation (I’m learning…), but would like to point out that research studies in medicine do not necessarily imply the truth either. Simply look at examples of use of medications for mental health efficacy and more simple topics like can we figure out what ‘normal’ blood pressure should be? (search Google). There are a lot of good points to consider from the original analysis of the adaptive unconscious from the original work by Tim Wilson. (also see the work by Daniel Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ – notice similarity in Kahneman’s concept of ‘system 1’ vs the adaptive unconscious concept). If we ‘decide’ now (whatever that means) that we can’t unlock the inner processing of the mind, then we might as well stop writing and asking questions and blogging….

  11. Pingback: Is Zen Enough? | Hardcore Zen
  12. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    Hi Sukha: Yes. There’s benefits. See my post on 3 Major Benefits below. But, benefits of meditation are typically not what most people are led to believe by pop culture, gurus, or mystics. I’m especially skeptical of supernatural claims and revelations, whether in meditation or other practices. There really is little or no reliable evidence that meditation is better than many other practices, hobbies, sleep, sensory deprivation, or natural fulfilling human experiences. I plan to explore these topics further on this website. Who knows? Maybe I will find convincing evidence that I’m wrong, and am willing to revise my thinking. Faith, personal experiences, or feelings are unreliable methods of identifying truth.

    Thanks for your question. I’d be interested to learn what you think and what you see as the benefits of meditation. Scott

  13. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    badblood: Thanks for your comment and pointing out these definitions. I’ve made a correction in my post to clarify what I meant and to use proper context for control and uncontrolled study groups in my review of the study. Regards.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>