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.
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.
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?
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