Tagged: clinical studies

Negative findings on mindfulness are underreported, suggests study

Mindfulness research is often “spun” to appear positive, says article in Public Library of Science

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, analyzed 124 published studies of mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), and found studies reported positive findings 60% more than is statistically likely. Only three of the studies reported negative outcomes and those were often “spun” to appear positive. Also, 62% of registered, completed MBT studies are not being published–suggesting that negative or non-findings are omitted from publication and mindfulness research is overly positive.

The study, Reporting of Positive Results in Randomized Controlled Trials of Mindfulness-Based Mental Health Interventions, was published 8 Apr 2016 in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) since 2006.1

“A bias toward publishing studies that find the technique to be effective withholds important information from mental-health clinicians and patients,” says Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida, who was not involved in the study. “I think this is a very important finding,” he told Nature.

McGill psychiatry professor Dr. Brett Thombs, one of the researchers, told Health News Review there is a “massive push to support and propagate it [the mindfulness message],” and that “it isn’t dissimilar to [the drug industry] pushing cures that don’t work like they say they do.”

Thombs and team examined the evidence to support the health benefits being pushed by advocates of MBT. “While I’d agree that those selling wares carry out all sorts of shenanigans to promote their work,” he said, “could this be happening with mindfulness?” Let’s look.

Survey of Mindfulness Studies

The McGill researchers searched the medical and scientific databases for published papers on randomized controlled trials of MBT. Their initial search yielded 1,183 unique publications. After systematic review and excluding duplicates, they were left with 124 unique randomized controlled MBT trials: 4 (3%) published before 2000, 40 (32%) between 2000-2009, and 80 (65%) in 2010 or later.

“For 124 trials, the researchers calculated the probability that a trial with that sample size could detect the result reported.” Nature explained, “Experiments with smaller sample sizes are more affected by chance and thus worse at detecting statistically significant positive results. The scientists’ calculations suggested that 66 of 124 trials would have positive results. Instead, 108 trials had positive results. And none of the 21 registered trials adequately specified which of the variables they tracked would be the main one used to evaluate success.”

The team also examined another 21 trials that were registered with databases such as ClinicalTrials.gov; of these, 62% were unpublished 30 months after they finished. The findings suggest that non-findings or negative results are going unpublished.

Andreas-photography, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Andreas-photography, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Cherry-picking “positive” findings

Serious risks of bias are introduced when researchers fail to pre-register or don’t specify the variables to be used to evaluate treatment success. Pre-registration introduces transparency into the scientific process. Researchers and publishers are then less likely to selectively pick data to support “findings” and to underreport non-findings or negative outcomes.

“Reporting biases are said to occur when statistically significant or ‘positive’ outcomes have been preferentially published compared to non-significant or ‘negative’ outcomes.” wrote McGill team.

Biases skew mindfulness research

A concern expressed in McGill study was the overwhelmingly significant results in favor of MBT and mindfulness-based stress reduction. The authors say MBT reporting is influenced by:

  • Publication bias: positive studies tend to be published, whereas negative not
  • Selective outcome bias: studies are selected for publishing that show positive outcomes
  • Selective analysis bias: data is analyzed using numerous methods and only positive results are reported
  • Other biases: non-significant outcomes are glossed-over and made to appear positive

Thombs and team point out data dredging may be playing an important role in biased MBT research. Data dredging2 (also called p-hacking, data fishing, data snooping, and equation fitting) mines data to uncover patterns in the data and then presents findings as statistically significant. Dredging of data may be avoided by scientists who first devise a specific hypothesis as to the underlying causality of treatment, and by pre-registering trials before collecting clinical data.

Widespread bias and publication omissions occur, not only in MBT studies, warns LiveScience.com in Dark Side of Medical Research. Medical journals and researchers have a strong incentive to report only “positive” results, leaving out non-findings or negative findings when a therapy or procedure may have proved more harmful than helpful.

Image: honor the gift , Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Image: honor the gift , Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

What are we to conclude?

Alan Cassels, a health policy researcher with University of Victoria and contributor to Health News Review writes, “Researchers in mindfulness, like almost anywhere, are capable of cherry-picking studies, some of which may make outrageous claims…”.

Mindfulness and meditation techniques may not be as miraculous as many want us believe. Certainly there always will be charlatans or delusional teachers who stand to profit from selling sham treatments and false promises.

Thombs admits: “I don’t believe that mindfulness training is completely ineffective or is harmful. I do believe–and I am supported by the evidence that we are publishing–that we don’t have a very good idea of how effective it is.”

Mindfulness studies are low quality and overly positive. Important health decisions require good research not pseudoscientific hype. “For the health-care system,” says Thombs, “it’s just as important to know what doesn’t work.”

Science has yet to prove the medical benefits of meditation are better than a placebo, a pretend treatment that one believes makes them feel better.

“If your particular form of meditation makes you feel good, do it!,” says John Horgan, writer at Scientific American.3 “But don’t kid yourself that its medical benefits have been scientifically proven.”

Many questions surround the practice of meditation and mindfulness. Seldom discussed are adverse side effects, including suggestibility, anxiety, psychosis and suicide. There is a cultish aspect to meditation: followers may be more vulnerable to psychological manipulation by charlatans and delusional teachers. (Watch Kumare, a disturbing and captivating documentary film of a fake Indian guru who built a following of real American devotees. We Westerners are so gullible for yogis and gurus.)

Before embracing or dismissing meditation, recognize the biases of its pushers and detractors. Thoroughly, intelligently, and methodically investigate claims.

Decide for yourself, read my posts on:

Adverse (Side) Effects

Escaping the psychological trap of meditation techniques

Meditation & Mindfulness

Notes

1 PLOS ONE, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLOS_ONE

2 Data DredgingWikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_dredging

3 Research on TM and Other Forms of Meditation Stinks,  John Horgan, Scientific American, 8 Mar 2013,  http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/research-has-not-shown-that-meditation-beats-a-placebo/

References

Reporting of Positive Results in Randomized Controlled Trials of Mindfulness-Based Mental Health Interventions, Stephanie Coronado-Montoya, Alexander W. Levis, Linda Kwakkenbos, Russell J. Steele, Erick H. Turner, Brett D. Thombs, PLOS One, 8 Apr 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153220

Power of positive thinking skews mindfulness studies: Trials of mindfulness to improve mental health selectively report positive results, Anna Nowogrodzki, Nature, 21 Apr 2016. Accessed 27 Apr 2016 at
http://www.nature.com/news/power-of-positive-thinking-skews-mindfulness-studies-1.19776

The marketing of mindfulness and why that matters, Health News Review, Alan Cassels, 12 Apr 2016. Accessed 27 Apr 2016 at http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2016/04/the-marketing-of-mindfulness-and-why-that-matters/

 

Obsessive-compulsive symptoms & role of meditation beliefs and practices

David Masters, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
David Masters, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Studies show a link between obsessive-compulsive behaviors and high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.

Many meditation beliefs and practices contain high religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking.

Eastern- or yoga-meditation practices hold a variety of beliefs in subtle energies, chakras, spirits, gods, and mystical realms.

Meditators who heighten or intensify these beliefs and practices may increase their likelihood of obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors.

Clinical psychologists, E. Eremsoy and M. Inozu, at the University of Ankara, Turkey, studied1 165 adult participants who had no history of psychiatric conditions.

  • Participants completed four standard psychological questionnaires: Magical Ideation Scale, Thought Control Questionnaire, Obsessive Compulsive Inventory, and Demographic Information Form.
  • The results showed a significant link between magical thinking, religiosity, and thought control in determining obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  • The researchers concluded that further studies are needed to identify whether heightened magical thinking, religiosity and thought control are direct causes in the development of OC symptoms.

Obsessive-compulsive defined

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a brain and behavior problem that is characterized by recurring and disabling obsessions (thoughts, images) and compulsions (uncontrollable actions) that won’t go away. The unwanted intrusion of these thoughts and activities may appear suddenly, interrupt the stream of consciousness, and evoke anxiety and distress.2

I do not claim that everyone who meditates has pathological OCD. Neither do I claim that all meditators have obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Yet some may. What I am suggesting is that many Eastern-inspired meditation beliefs and practices encourage a heightened religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking, which recent psychological studies have linked to OC symptoms.

My history of meditation beliefs and practices revealed to me that spiritual teachers implanted a high degree of magical thinking, religiosity, and thought-controls–all foundational concepts in classical and contemporary yoga-meditation. Studies show these kinds of beliefs and practices play a key role in OC symptoms.

OC symptoms: Role of meditation beliefs and practices

To point you to what I see as strong relationships between OC symptoms and meditation beliefs and practices, I’ve quoted the Eremsoy study and provided my comments below:

Magical thinking is one of a number of OCD-related faulty beliefs. It refers to broader cognitive distortions about causality: real-life events are seen as being caused by a person’s thoughts and actions that are physically unconnected to the events.3

New age religions and occult often hold magical beliefs in the “law of attraction”, karma, and “thoughts are things” that bring the thinker either good or evil, prosperity or poverty, enlightenment or delusion. Read my post Gurus on the Financial Plane.

Several empirical studies have found that magical thinking was related to general psychopathology measures, anxiety, dissociative experiences, neuroticism, and schizotypal personality.4

In severe cases, meditation beliefs and practices have reportedly led some to extreme dissociative experiences (depersonalization/derealization)–that is, feelings of being outside one’s body, detachment from self or others, or as if looking from behind a glass. It is easy to see that some people who may be prone to OC behaviors could be attracted to meditation practices, or, that intense meditation beliefs and practices could cause psychopathology.
Read my post on Depersonalization/Derealization.

Magical thinking seems to have two functions: a) it increases sense of threat as an input; and b) it motivates a person to regain the control by showing neutralizing behaviour as an output.5

We may imagine certain thoughts or actions are “out of tune” with divine harmony, bring bad karma, or lead to sin or hell and so on. We then get anxious and fearful, which motivates us to meditate more and to try to neutralize and control our thoughts. We inevitably fail. A vicious cycle keeps us bound to spiritual teachers and religious practices who further instill worry and fear of punishment for our physical, moral, and spiritual failures. Read my post on Duped by Meditation.

Strict religious beliefs and moral codes may motivate highly religious individuals to attach strong personal meaning to the content and occurrence of intrusive thoughts. Some highly religious people may easily conclude that some thoughts can represent a type of moral failure and that may shake their complete faith in God; therefore immoral thoughts should be removed from the stream of consciousness in order to regain a feeling of purity and right standing with God.6

These beliefs about the importance of thoughts might activate deliberative thought-control efforts…. Recent studies have reported that highly religious individuals endorsed significantly more maladaptive beliefs about the importance and control of intrusive thoughts than did low religious individuals. These individuals also may show a higher tendency to believe in the power of their own thoughts.7

People use diverse strategies to control their unwanted thoughts, including distraction, thought replacement, thought stopping, analyzing thought, and suppression. Unfortunately, directing awareness away from unwanted thoughts is not always easy, and failure is inevitable….Individuals with OCD may have a belief that perfect control is possible and inability to achieve it is a sign of increased threat and failed mental control.8

Meditation teachers often falsely lead us to believe it is possible to achieve perfect control, perfect stillness of mind or permanent cessation of suffering–if we surrender our wills and energy to following their teachings. It is these teachers who instilled in us the worry and fear of punishment if we don’t properly follow and believe in their magical claims.

Although every act of magical thinking does not need to rely on supernatural agents (e.g., a spirit, ancestor, god, angel, saint) as seen in the case of prayer, some kinds of magical thinking are dependent on supernatural agents. The basic notion of intercessory prayer is that a specific supernatural agent might cause or prevent an event on the supplicant’s behalf.9

I recall a chant from Self-Realization Fellowship meditations, “Guru, image of Brahma, deliver us from delusion.” Chants, affirmations, prayers, or visualizations–these are often used to supplicate the gods, angels, or miraculous agents to intercede on our behalf. Magical thinking.

Strong devotion to religion may increase the tendency to engage in magical ideation, which in turn increases the need to remove these [unwanted] thoughts from the stream of consciousness through control strategies. However, these intentional thought-control efforts usually increase the frequency and intensity of intrusions.10

If a person with magical thoughts uses certain thought-control strategies, such as worry or punishment, in order to control his or her thoughts, he or she may suffer from OC symptoms, mainly because the effort in controlling the thoughts would further increase the thought itself, which creates a vicious cycle.11

Religious individuals seem to use worry and punishment as thought-control strategies, which then result in increased OC symptoms…. Magical beliefs often manifest themselves as superstitious behaviors, religious sacraments, and personal rituals.12

In summary, recent studies show a significant link between high religiosity, magical thinking, beliefs and needs for control of unwanted thoughts, and obsessive-compulsive (OC) behaviors. Many meditation beliefs and practices are rooted in various degrees of religiosity, thought-control, and magical thinking. When these factors are heightened in meditators it may increase OC-type symptoms.

Notes
1 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 pp. 1-14, Cambridge University Press. Read the abstract at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10215218&fileId=S0813483915000169

2 A more detailed definition of OCD can be read at the International OCD Foundation website https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/

3 C. Ekin Eremsoy and Mujgan Inozu, The Role of Magical Thinking, Religiosity and Thought-Strategies in Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms in a Turkish Adults Sample, Behaviour Change, Vol 33:1 Apr 2016 p. 2

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 ibid

7 p. 2-3

8 p. 3

9 ibid

10 ibid

11 p. 10

12 ibid

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

The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?

the buddha pillCan practice of contemplative techniques bring lasting personal change? If so, are changes always for the better?

Two Oxford psychologists, Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, examine the empirical evidence and tease out facts from fictions about meditation.

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Farias and Wikholm examine 40 years of clinical studies about the effects of Transcendental Meditation, popularized by Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and investigate the astonishing claims made by mindfulness meditation advocates.

Meditation practice appears to have physiological benefits. Yet, “a crucial problem”, grapples Farias, “is how to pinpoint the active ingredient of mindfulness that helps with depression.” (p 111)

The authors also did their own empirical studies using inmates of U.K. prisons: stress-testing the effects of yoga meditation on murderers, rapists, and thugs.

Examining 40 years of research on effects of meditation, the authors concluded:

  1. Scientific evidence for lasting change from meditation practice is weak.
  2. Only modest changes for practitioners of meditation. Yet many who use or teach meditation techniques make astonishing claims about their powers.
  3. Meditation gives rise to different mental states, but there is nothing physiologically extraordinary going on.
  4. Studies are poorly conducted: have small sample sizes, lack proper control groups, and full of problematic biases. They explain why in detail.
  5. There is a dark side to meditation–psychosis, breakdowns, and violent behaviors–that seldom is spoken of by meditation advocates and practitioners.

Farias and Wikholm are sympathetic to meditation. Though the empirical evidence revealed that meditation is not a cure-all and is not a magic pill, while some practitioners experience nothing and others have adverse side-effects.

“I haven’t stopped believing in meditation’s ability to fuel change, but I am concerned that the science of meditation is promoting a skewed view: meditation wasn’t developed so we could lead less stressful lives or improve our wellbeing. It’s primary purpose was much more radical–to rupture your idea of who you are; to shake to the core your sense of self so that you realize there is ‘nothing there’.” (p 152)

The chapter The Dark Side of Meditation gives many examples of Buddhist violence and how a Buddha or bodhisattva may justify killing. Farias recounts how during his visit to an Indian yoga guru’s ashram, he was confronted by machine gun-carrying guards and was walled-in by pro-death penalty posters. “What if Hitler had meditated?” they ask: speculating what if the Fuhrer would have meditated and experienced lasting physiological change, conquered the world by compassion and peace instead of killing and violence.

“One of the crucial teachings of Buddhism is that of emptiness: the self is ultimately unreal, so the bodhisattva who kills with full knowledge of the emptiness of the self, kills no one; both the self of the killer and the self of the the killed are nothing more than an illusion (p 166).

“The most recent evidence, which analyzes dozens of studies conducted over more than forty years, suggests that if you are generally anxious or emotionally unstable, TM (Transcendental Meditation) will help you to a moderate extent, and will be more effective than simple relaxation. If you have have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends TM (while mindfulness is not recommended), although physical exercise, such as swimming or running, would be better.” (p 14)

A ground-breaking book, The Buddha Pill, promotes critical thinking about meditation in an easy to follow and yoga-friendly tone. Farias and Wikholm guide the reader to question and think critically about the astonishing claims of meditation advocates.

Seven Popular Myths about Meditation

The origin of species, Hendrik van Leeuwen, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The origin of species, Hendrik van Leeuwen, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s no scientific consensus that meditation can cure mind, body or soul. So why do so many drink Buddha-flavored kool-aid?

Before you swallow the kool-aid, consider the myths surrounding mindfulness and meditation.

“It is hard to have a balanced view when the media is full of articles attesting to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. We need to be aware that the reports of benefits are often inflated… whereas studies that do not discover significant benefits rarely pick up media interest, and negative effects are seldom talked about”, warns Wikholm.1

In The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, Catherine Wikholm co-author, with Dr Miguel Farias, bust seven common myths of meditation.

The University of Surrey and Oxford researchers in clinical psychology found studies that revealed meditation actually raises stress hormones. A US study found that 63% of people on meditation retreats had one adverse side effect, from confusion to panic and depression.2 One in 14 had experienced ‘profoundly adverse effects’.

kool-aid, amanda-freenman, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
kool-aid, amanda-freenman, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is growing evidence that for some people meditation may cause mania, hallucinations, depression and psychosis.

“…Meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self–who we feel and think we are most of the time–is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it, which focus almost exclusively on the benefits practitioners can expect,” writes Wikholm.

Article originally appeared in The Guardian

Here are seven popular myths about meditation that are not supported by scientific evidence.

Myth 1: Meditation does not have adverse or negative effects. Meditation only changes us for the better

Fact: Many who have researched the benefits of meditation also have personal or professional interest in promoting the mindfulness movement. The emerging evidence is that meditation can be associated with stress, negative effects and mental health problems.

When something goes wrong or if meditation doesn’t work, the problem say meditation advocates, is not with meditation. There’s something wrong with the patient or the practitioner. “It’s not the meditation. She didn’t practice right or must have already been predisposed to psychosis”. This is called blaming the victim.

Myth 2: Meditation can benefit everyone

Fact: No surprise that meditation may have benefits that vary from person to person. “After all, the practice wasn’t intended to make us happier or less stressed”, says Wikholm, “but to assist us in diving deep within and challenging who we believe we are”. Everyone will react differently during the process of dismantling of the individual “self”. Whatever your belief of self is, your mistake is to try use meditation to define it.3

Myth 3: If everyone meditated the world would be a much better place

Fact: “There is no scientific evidence that meditation is more effective at making us, for example, more compassionate than other spiritual or psychological practices”, writes Wikholm. When we expect to benefit from something, we will most likely find or report benefits.

Myth 4: If you’re seeking personal change and growth, meditating is as efficient–or more–than standard therapy

Fact: There’s no evidence that the benefits of meditation are the same or better as of being in conventional psychological therapy. Most studies compare mindfulness to “treatment as usual” (such as seeing your General Medical Practitioner), rather than one-to-one therapy.

Myth 5: Meditation produces a unique state of consciousness that we can measure scientifically

Fact: The overall evidence is that these meditative states are not physiologically unique. The consciousness or internal sensations from practice can be experienced from many other activities: such as during sleep, relaxation, or engaging in sex or our favorite hobby or sport.

Myth 6: We can practice meditation as a purely scientific technique with no religious or spiritual leanings

Fact: “Research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual, and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects”, writes Wikholm. Similar to what was noted above about the mistake of trying to define self, trying to define what spirituality is probably a mistake as well. Meditators often have a conscious or unconscious leaning towards illuminating the “self” or becoming spiritual, whatever that means.

Myth 7: Science has undeniably shown how meditation can change us and why

Fact: Some studies show that meditating can have a greater impact than physical relaxation, although other research using a placebo meditation contradicts this finding. Advocates of meditation can be overenthusiastic about scientific studies and overlook the actual findings. When looking beyond the headlines and hype we find that science knows little about meditation, if and why it may or may not work with some people. Unlike established scientific facts, like gravity or evolution, there’s currently no consensus, no testable scientific theory for how meditation changes us and why.

Conclusion

Some people may get benefits from meditating. But not everyone. And, occasionally meditation may cause depression, paranoia, and psychosis. Meditation was not designed to make people happy, but was designed by renunciants who wanted to destroy the sense of individual self. When the benefits of meditation are not forthcoming or when things go wrong it’s not always caused by the practitioner. We need better scientific studies and a testable theory for how and why meditation works. We need open public discussion about the adverse (side) effects of meditation practices, not just the benefits.

Is it any surprise that some people might go mad from meditation–as it was not designed originally for human happiness but for destruction of the individual self?

Are you surprised by the above myths or facts? Submit your comments below.

Further reading

Notes

1 Quote from Mindfulness apparently isn’t as good for you as science originally thought, The Debrief

2 See my post “Unusual experiences” of mindfulness for more data on adverse events occurring during meditation retreats

3 See Why “Being Authentic” is Holding You Back, Fast Company for further discussion about practical problems of defining “self”