10 Reasons to be Skeptical of Meditation Studies

Alice Popkorn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Alice Popkorn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Discovering the difference between fact and fiction with meditation studies can be difficult, especially without the right research. This list of 10 reasons to be skeptical of meditation studies examines the problems with the hype, contradictions, and conflicts of interest in meditation research.

This article originally appeared in Scientific American

1. Hype Problem

Every week there’s a new study out to illustrate an alleged new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit just now being confirmed by science, in a clinical lab, or on a brain scanning fMRI or EEG machine.

This week “Practicing yoga, meditation can result in fewer doctor visits: new study says” my newsreader was inundated with variants of these headlines to supposedly illustrate more benefits of the ancient “science” of meditation.

Read my post Is Meditation Overrated? Scientific Evidence Is Scant

2. Allegiance Problem

Meditation research is plagued by investigators who tend to find evidence that support the particular meditation method they favor.

In 2014, the Johns Hopkins University reviewed 17,801 papers on meditation and found 41 relatively high-quality studies involving 2,993 human subjects. Of these, 41 studies, 10 had low-risk of confirmation bias, according to the John Hopkins team. The confirmation bias is that meditation researchers actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and to disregard or under-weigh evidence contrary to their hypothesis. 

Tack on the media’s tendency to hype the benefits, the difficulty in scrutinizing the studies, and we find ourselves enmeshed in Hype and Allegiance Problems. Some of the public does not either know any better nor cares to scrutinize the media’s claims or the studies findings.

3. “Everyone’s A Winner” Problem

Reading the meditation studies carefully reveals that the alleged benefits are low to moderate, with no evidence that meditation is actually superior to specific therapies they were compared with, say with sleep or drugs.

Read my post Meditation Not Better Than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds

4. Placebo Effect Problem

What is meditation’s active ingredient? What exactly about meditation “works”–that is, what is it that makes people feel better?

Alina Sandu, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Alina Sandu, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

What all meditators share is an expectation that the method will make them feel better. Guess what? Most practitioners do feel better without being able to identify exactly what caused it. Expectations of benefits run high and are fed by the media, gurus, and romantic notions of Eastern-styled enlightenment. When practitioners are primed to expect benefits their symptoms are likely to improve through increased efforts in meditation whether or not the active ingredient was indeed meditation.

Meditation practices are similar to a sugar pill. The practitioner harnesses the power of the placebo effect: OM, nirvana, the blissful sweetness of nothing.

5. Brain Scan Problem

Using fMRI brain scans, meditation has been shown to cause changes in the brain. But so what? Listening to music or checking Facebook shows changes in brain scans. The fact that findings or brain scans show activated or changed areas of the brain does not make meditation’s alleged benefits more credible.

6. Niceness Problem

Some meditators and researchers suggest that if more people meditated then the world would be a better, more peaceful, and a nicer place to live. Yet, U.S. Marines are taught mindfulness meditation, which apparently will help them feel better about carrying out violent U.S. policies.

Behind bars thousands of convicted felons have been trained to regularly practice yoga meditation. “Despite positive results”, writes Dr. Miguel Farias in The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, “there were no real changes in how aggressive prisoners felt.”

Read my post on The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? 

7. Bad Guru Problem

Many charismatic teachers have claimed that they meditated their way to enlightenment or to soul liberation while in the body. Some prominent teachers and gurus–Chogyan Trungpa, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Sai Baba, Andrew Cohen–have been embroiled in abuse scandals and have behaved more like sociopaths rather than saints. Meditation buyer beware.

8. Compassion Training Problem

When Matthieu Ricard come out of Nepal, where he spent tens of thousands of hours training himself to be compassionate he went to New York, where he taught meditation to “financiers”. A business coach I had would urge me to always follow the money. Ricards guru maybe told him the same?

If a person is truly compassionate, shouldn’t he spend more time actually helping others rather than meditating? argues Horgan. Also, is teaching wealthy financiers about meditation an act of compassion? Seems the Western gurus follow the money, compassionately of course.

9. Truth Problem

Some meditators insist that the goal of meditation is ultimate knowledge of mind, reality, or Self.

“The problem is”, writes Horgan, “that different meditators ‘discover’ different truths. Some find confirmation of their belief in God, the soul, reincarnation, extrasensory perception and other supernatural phenomena. Others find confirmation of their materialism and atheism. The problem is similar to that posed by mystical experiences. You discover heaven, I discover hell”.

Read my post Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness

10. Having No Goal Problem

Some meditators insist you should not seek anything from meditation. That a practitioner should have no goal. If meditators had no expectation or goal, if that were even possible, why would anyone even want to meditate. Isn’t the notion of meditation to attain something that can’t be found by not practicing meditation: feeling better, experiencing consciousness as infinite or some such goal?

Having no goal is a goal. “When meditators tell me that they meditate without a goal, it confirms my view of meditation as a form of self-brainwashing” says Horgan.

Does Horgan think meditation is a waste of time? “Not at all”. Neither do I.

But, neither is reading poetry or listening to music a waste of time. Research studies have found that reading poetry and listening to music positively affects and changes our brains, makes us feel better, and has many other physical and emotional benefits. So why be obsessed with meditation?

Read the full article Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation by John Horgan in Scientific American

8 comments

  1. Uwsboi14

    Regarding #10, listening to Bach while walking under sunlit autumn leaves in the late afternoon is more beautiful than any meditation I can remember in the longest time. Seeing the beauty in nature can healthier than peering into the darkness waiting for an unseen hand to liberate you from yourself. (Liberation is perhaps a fancy way of running away….)

  2. My Other Feet

    While I think the possibility for misinformation in these studies is an ethical problem that ought to be resolved; regarding item #4, the Placebo Effect, I wonder whether these studies offer much value to folks who meditate, or want to start meditating. The efficacy of the placebo effect is well documented. If meditation can provide access to the benefits of that effect, it is cheaper than drugs, and it mixes well with sleep — even if its mystical, traditional, or religious claims are questionable.

  3. SkepticMeditations

    @My Other Feet (Greg?): I agree Placebos bring benefits.

    What kinds of benefit did you get from meditation practice after you stripped out the supernatural aims and claims?

    To me, practicing meditation seems like a costly placebo compared to other options for feeling better, like sleep, music, sex, countless other activities.

    Thanks

  4. My Other Feet

    @S.M.: You’re correct, Greg and My Other Feet are the same person — sorry about the name changes and confusion.

    I suppose if you consider the case as one of meditation or other stress coping mechanisms, then you may be correct: sleeping, exercising, listening to music, and having sex are immediate and require less training than developing a meditation practice. However, I think of meditation as simply one additional tool that can be used to build a balanced, fulfilling life. In other words, it is meditation and other stress coping mechanisms.

    I don’t think meditation is a silver bullet that will solve people’s emotional or psychological problems by itself, and consequently, I think it is wrong to expect it to fix all problems. I think the case could be compared to seeking medical attention for a severe chronic chest infection: meditation is like taking Robitussin; unless you’re Chris Rock’s Dad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nrs9_EpSlyc), there is a point at which one ought to give up on the Robitussin and go to the doctor.

    I find meditation and the claims that surround it interesting because nearly all of the traditional sources that describe meditation denounce the supernatural aims of meditation as valuable goals — instead, those supernatural powers are roadside attractions, so to speak. (I don’t have my source texts at hand, but I can find citations if needed.) Most Yoga texts I’ve read — e.g. Patañjali’s Yogasutras, Svatmarama’s Hathayogapradipika, and the Gherenda Saṃhita — describe the powers one can gain from yoga practice, but they also say that to pursue these supernatural powers as aims in themselves is to mistake the goal of yoga practice. Consequently, I think the takeaway from this is that one ought to disregard the supernatural aims of meditation. In my experience, it is possible to follow the non-mystical instructions of how to meditate, like those explained in basic Zen sitting meditation, and experience some unexpected and surprising subjective states from that practice. I can’t explain those experiences, but they have occurred — and that keeps me coming back to meditation practice.

    I apologize for the lengthy reply to your question.

  5. SkepticMeditations

    @ My Other Feet: The yogis want to have it both ways. Something is wrong with the argument about not pursuing superpowers. These same yogis and devotees idolize their gurus who are all divine in large part because of their attainment of superpowers, miracles, and magical energies. At the same time (the Western yogis) say those superpowers should not be sought.

    I don’t see how one can honestly separate these siddhas (yogic superpowers) listed in Chapter 3 of Yoga Sutra of Patanjali from the ultimate goal of yoga meditation, and one must also include in Patajalic soteriology that the ultimate aim of yoga is liberation of the soul/self, jivanmukta–merging into deity.

    I may be off on some on my analysis here. But, I don’t think by much. You may be interested in a book by David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography. I wrote a review on Amazon and don’t seem to have posted that review on my blog. Maybe I ought to make a post for it. It’s a great book. I also list the book on my Resources page.

  6. My Other Feet

    @S.M.: I can understand your perspective, and if we’re talking about their argument in terms of two-value logic, where a proposition must be either true or false, I think you’re correct. However, I think there are a few additional aspects to this text that need to be included in the analysis:
    – First, the Yoga Sutras, as well as Buddhist, Jaina, and other traditions texts, were composed in a competitive atmosphere: similar to 19th century snake oil peddlers or contemporary political debates, it behooved each group to advertise their appealing features (e.g. siddhis). This doesn’t excuse the inclusion of “marketing claims” in a text that ought to teach a repeatable practice, but it at least provides a possible explanation for their inclusion.
    – Second, I think many the 20th century yogis who linked Yoga with science, did so without understanding what ‘science’ entailed. They understood Yoga has a well-defined method of instruction and practice, and incorrectly assumed a commonality with scientific practice without adjusting the methods of verification and falsification for yogic knowledge: that error of linking ancient texts with scientific method lies with the yogis and gurus who popularized the text, rather than the text. There is an aspect of “buyer beware” when following a teacher, which if I understand your position correctly, is a key tenet of your ideas here.
    – Third, I think a three-value system of logic ought to be applied when reading texts that were composed before the development of the scientific method (i.e. before circa 1500 A.D.). Rather than requiring all propositions of an ancient text to be true or false, a third value of “unknown” allows an interpretation of ancient texts. Unknown propositions are neither false nor true, allowing further analysis to occur before determining whether such propositions fall into the true or false buckets. If a claim cannot be determined as true or false (e.g. mystical claims, or claims from unverifiable subjective experience), then those claims cannot be scientifically tested because they have no falsifying conditions.
    – Fourth, your point about soteriology is interesting. One of the puzzling things about the Yogasutra is the variety of definitions of yoga and liberation that Patanjali provides: sutra 1.2 contains little, if any, mystical claims or higher-self language, but there are other sutras in the text that do talk about mysticism: e.g. how do you understand “ishvara” in 1.23-27? It can be translated as master, king, queen, or god, and it’s possible to render the additional sutras on ishvara in varying degrees of mysticism, from following an accomplished teacher to worshipping a god.

    I like White’s writing. I have his edited book on Tantra, but I out of the loop on many of his newer books, although they look interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

Leave a Reply