evaluating credibility meditation experiments

Evaluating Credibility of Meditation Experiments

How to evaluate the credibility of meditation experiments? What are the harms of meditation and complementary therapies?

This post suggests ways to evaluate for yourself the credibility of meditation experiments. I also present my thesis that meditators who also believe in subtle life energy (prana, chi or qi) are more likely to seek out and harm themselves by using Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) including acupuncture, special diets, guided imagery, tai chi, qigong, and any sort of energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing used for the treatment of specific medical conditions or disease symptoms.

Post Contents (click link to jump to section in this post)

Meditation as Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)
How Common are Meditation and CAM Therapies?
CAM practiced in absence of evidence
For credible evidence CAM therapies must demonstrate
Biological mechanisms: subtle energy (prana, qi or chi)?
“Active Ingredient” in Meditation?
Placebo and Meditation or CAM
Six Points of Belief Affects Effectiveness
Magical-, Spiritual-Thinking: Gateway to Meditation and CAM
How to Evaluate the Research Yourself
Six Steps of Increasing Credibility of Experiments
Flaws with Meditation Experiments and RCTs
Harms of Meditation or CAM Treatments

Listen to this blog post: Evaluating Credibility of Meditation Experiments

Meditation as Complementary Alternative Medicine

Firstly, meditation used for medical or psychological treatment is, in the medical and scientific domain, considered CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). CAM are physical, mental, chemical, or psychic interventions such as acupuncture, chiropractic and osteopathic, deep breathing, special diets, homeopathy, herbs, guided imagery, meditation, megavitamin therapy, massage, hypnosis, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and any sort of energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing used for the treatment of specific medical conditions or disease symptoms.

How Common are Meditation and CAM Therapies?

The US National Institute of Health published a 2012 and the Centers for Disease Control published a 2007 report showing most common CAM therapies, which includes meditation. Meditation has significant increases for usage as a therapy. Note the two charts indicate there are commonalities between the other 9 most common therapies as they relate to underlying beliefs in subtle life energy, prana or chi/qi (which we discuss below).

CAM practiced in absence of evidence

CAM therapies are practiced in the absence of:

1) Scientific (credible) evidence proving their effectiveness, and;

2) A plausible biological explanation for why they should work.

Meditation interventions and CAM therapies have failed to meet their burden of proof as an effective treatment for medical and psychological intervention. Why?

For credible evidence CAM therapies must demonstrate:

1) A biological basis which is plausible and credible;

2) A provision the treatment could be proved to be ineffective. Also called falsifiability.

There is no plausible biological explanation that meditation techniques by themselves are more effective as a treatment than ordinary relaxation or placebo.

One explanation could be the patient’s belief is largely responsible for any benefits felt or experienced from meditation treatment. In other words, the placebo effect is what creates any significant felt results from the treatment. In other words, any effects from treatment result from the beliefs in the person’s mind or imagination. We will discuss placebo further below. First though, let’s return to whether there’s any plausible, credible biological basis for the effectiveness of meditation techniques.

Biological mechanisms: subtle energy (prana, qi or chi)?

Most meditation techniques are derived from Eastern Buddhist or Hindu traditions. These Eastern traditions posit there is some kind of subtle life energy (prana, qi, or chi) within and without the human body. Proponents of the subtle life energy (prana, qi, or chi) hypothesis say practice of meditation techniques can unblock or improve the flow of subtle life energy within the physical body. Thereby promoting health, healing both physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Supposedly there is a subtle (scientifically undetectable) network of energy centers (nadis or chakras) within the human body.

The biological basis for such a highly speculative invisible energy (prana, qi, or life force) and a subtle energy body is implausible, as yet undetectable, and has no credibility in modern medicine. Not only is there no biological mechanism or evidence of the energy but meditation techniques themselves don’t appear to be the “active ingredient”.

“Active Ingredient” in Meditation?

If the results of meditation or any CAM treatments were greater than a placebo the treatments would be accepted as medicine, that is evidence-based medicine. To-date, no one has come up with a credible placebo to demonstrate that meditation is the “active ingredient” which gives the results or benefits. Nor has anyone yet devised any credible, replicable experiments to demonstrate that meditation is more effective than ordinary relaxation, exercise, or cognitive psychotherapy.

Meditation studies presented in the mainstream media or news are often headlined as a viable or promising complementary alternative medical (CAM) or psychological treatment. Yet, the facts are meditation and CAM have not been demonstrated to be more effective than a sham treatments. Let’s now discuss the effects of placebo in meditation and CAM.

Placebo and Meditation or CAM

To reiterate, belief in and practices in meditation and CAM persists even after:

1) The scientific evidence shows no effectiveness (greater than a placebo or sham treatment) and

2) Their biological basis is not plausible and has been discredited. [1]

Our expectations that an intervention or treatment (such as meditation) can help sometimes gives us actual benefits. The placebo effect results when a fake treatment–an inactive substance like a sugar pill or meditation technique–can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation the treatment will be helpful.[2]

In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, R. Barker Bausell, a former Research Director of the National Institute for Health-funded Complementary Medicine Program, points out that,

If a completely inactive pill, ointment, or procedure (in other words, a placebo), accompanied by the expectation of effectiveness, can result in pain relief, then surely any therapy–no matter how bizarre–that we consider credible enough to seek out (and pay for) can also result in pain relief [or give us feelings of control and well-being], compliments of the placebo effect.[3]

The benefits some people feel from meditation practice could largely depend on practitioner’s belief and may be temporary. What beliefs make it possible to feel psychological an physical benefits?

Six Points of Belief Affects Effectiveness

There was a time when I fully believed that meditation techniques, as well as many CAM treatments, helped me relieve pain or gain mental or spiritual control. Why? Because I:

  1. Wanted to believe;
  2. Needed to believe;
  3. Was certain these beliefs fit my worldview and religious principles;
  4. Had many acquaintances who also shared these beliefs;
  5. Knew persons I respected who advocated these beliefs;
  6. Interpreted personal experiences as evidence for the effectiveness of these beliefs.[4]

These six points fit neatly into a worldview I adopted about Eastern mysticism, yoga philosophy, and magical- aka “spiritual”-thinking.

Magical-, Spiritual-Thinking: Gateway to Meditation and CAM

What I discovered was my beliefs in yoga meditation–containing implausible, subtle energies such as prana, qi, and chakras–linked directly to why I sought out and paid for CAM: my acupuncture treatment helped me because the needles are stuck in supposed energy meridians in the body. In reflexology (massaging of feet or hands) the tender spots on my feet mapped to energy blockages in the body. Same with psychic healing, mind over matter, and positive affirmations. All these ‘treatments” were rooted in the same magical-, spiritual-thinking that lead me to believe in the effectiveness in yoga meditation practice.

How to Evaluate the Research Yourself

Why take someone else’s word on these research studies into meditation or CAM? You could evaluate the evidence yourself. Granted that you also are open to learning from experts, like Bausell and his excellent book Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. When evaluating scientific papers Bausell recommends focusing on:

Methods and procedure section.

Where items such as blinding, randomization, sample size, and dropout/attrition are discussed. We discuss these items further below.

Results section.

Where the authors mention what was or was not statistically significant.
Researchers who conduct systematic reviews or meta-studies (studies of numerous studies) disregard investigator conclusions, writes Bausell in Snake Oil Science, which is one reason why systematic reviews are considered more effective and reliable than individual studies.

Bausell recommends ignoring the investigators’ discussions and conclusions sections because this is where authors may try to put a positive spin on their findings. An interpretation of one experiment is not enough. Researchers want to review the body of evidence (as in systematic review noted above) in high-quality studies to see if the findings have been independently validated and replicated.[5]

Six Steps of Increasing Credibility of Experiments

To evaluate the credibility of experiments it is necessary to understand the methods and procedures are more important than the conclusion[6]. In Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Bausell gives six steps for evaluating the credibility of CAM experiments (which includes meditation treatments).

In order of increasing credibility the six steps for evaluating experiments are:

  1. Randomized[7] controlled trials (RCTs) are more credible than nonrandomized trials.
  2. Large trials, with at least 50 patients per group (preferably more than 100) are more credible than small trials.
  3. Large, double-blinded[8] RCTs using placebo groups are more credible than RCTs not using placebos.
  4. Large double-blinded randomized, placebo-controlled trials with 20% or less drop-out rates are more credible than those with higher attrition rates (patients who drop-out of the trial before it is finished).
  5. Large double-blinded randomized, placebo-controlled trials with 20% or less drop-out rates published in high-quality journals are more credible.
  6. Large double-blinded randomized, placebo-controlled trials with 20% or less drop-out rates published in high-quality journals that have been independently validated and replicated by other investigators are more credible.

The gold standard for clinical studies or medical experiments are RCTs. To conduct RCTs you’d select a group of individuals from a wide population and randomly assign them to either a meditation or a control group.[10]

Flaws with Meditation Experiments and RCTs

Although RCTs are considered the gold standard for clinical studies, including meditation experiments, they may be flawed by:

Bias to believe – Often participants (patients) in the experiment are particularly interested in meditation. They join the study because of their interest in mediation. They join due to their belief that meditation can benefit them–which enhances the placebo effect.

Controls – The biggest problem with meditation studies is finding the right kind of activity for the control group. That is the placebo-controlled group that you will compare with meditation treatment group. Most researchers say you can’t and instead of placebo use active control groups. Participants in active control groups partake (instead of meditation treatment) in controlled relaxation, cognitive therapy, or exercise.[9]

Blinding – What can be done to “blind” participants as to which group, meditation or (placebo) control, they are in? The challenge is that researchers also are not blinded and know which group they are treating. When researchers and participants don’t know which group they are in the study is higher quality and is said to be double-blinded (when both study subjects and clinicians are ignorant which group they are working with). High quality studies “blind” both researchers and participants.

Harms of Meditation or CAM Treatments

The harm of using meditation or CAM to treat physical or psychological problems is the delay of credible diagnosis and treatment. Earlier diagnosis and treatment could have saved many people from further harm. Meditators often also believe in energetic, psychic, or spiritual healing, which are often a component of belief in CAM treatments (as we noted above with the 10 Most Common CAM therapies in the NIH and CDC charts above).

When belief or disbelief is the “active ingredient” in a treatment then we should not claim that a therapy itself is effective. It’s the belief that is effective, not the treatment. Unfortunately, people who meditate as treatment probably also believe in or use CAM therapies. Use of CAM or meditation therapies can delay diagnosis and treatment for serious illnesses, including cancer.

I’m not implying all meditators are the same; they all use meditation as prophylactic (treatment to prevent disease). Obviously, many meditators use meditation for other reasons. A thesis I put forward in this post is many meditators, especially those who believe in subtle life energy, prana, chi or qi, are more likely to seek out and be harmed by CAM treatments. There’s no credible scientific evidence that CAM or meditation therapies offer anything more than temporary relief of stress. There is no credible evidence that meditation therapies are more effective the relaxation, sleep, drugs or placebo (fake or sham treatment).

Question for readers: What’s your experience or observation? Do meditation beliefs in prana, chi or qi lead to increased use CAM therapies?

Special thanks to Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing for his editorial assistance and comments prior to publication of this post. Without Scott’s help and encouragement this post would not be published.

Notes

1 Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine,  R. Barker Bausell. (2007) Oxford University Press. Ch. Rise of Complementary and Alternative Therapies: Definitions of CAM p 21

2 Placebo: Latin “to please”, is any irrelevent procedure or inert substance that produces a genuine psychological or physiological response. The placebo effect, or placebo response, is a phenomenon in which a placebo–a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution–may improve a patient’s condition simply because the person expects it will be helpful. Bausell p 30.

3 Bausell p 256. On p 292 we read “Neither a placebo nor a CAM therapy is going to cure anything that will not resolve itself or that the body does not have the capacity to deal with. Both a placebo and a CAM therapy that appeals to you, however, are equally capable of relieving pain if it isn’t too severe.” Using meditation techniques also can give someone a sense of pain relief or psychological control.

4 Adapted from Bausell, Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

5 Bausell. Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine, p182

6 “In science, methodology is the detailed process used to arrive at a scientific conclusion. As you can imagine, the more the methodology is flawed, the more likely researchers are to come to an inaccurate conclusion.”– Bo Bennett. For elaboration about why method and procedure is more important than conclusion readers are encouraged to listen to or read Dr. Bennett’s Methodology Over Conclusion https://www.thedrboshow.com/tools/bg/Bo/TheDrBoShow/B7RvXyZw/Methodology-Over-Conclusion.

7 “A randomized controlled trial (or randomized control trial; RCT) is a type of scientific (often medical) experiment, where the people being studied are randomly allocated one or other of the different treatments under study. The RCT is often considered the gold standard for a clinical trial”. Retrieved from Wikipedia on Mar. 20, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randomized_controlled_trial

8 Double-blinded study: A medical study in which both the subjects participating and the researchers are unaware of whether the actual or a placebo (sham/fake) treatment or procedure has been given. Retrieved from MedicineNet.com on Mar. 20, 2016, from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=11177

9 The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Miguel Farias and Catherine Wickholm. Watkins Publishing (2015). p 56. This easy to read and excellent book goes in-depth into the history and latest meditation research, it’s flaws, and promises.

10 Additional Resources for Evaluating the Credibility of Meditation or CAM Experiments

Quality Assessment of Controlled Intervention Studies checklist, National Institute of Health
http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-pro/guidelines/in-develop/cardiovascular-risk-reduction/tools/rct

Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions
http://handbook.cochrane.org/chapter_8/8_4_introduction_to_sources_of_bias_in_clinical_trials.htm

Medical Nonsense, Interview with Dr. Angie Feazel Mattke. Skepticality Podcast, Episode 278 (2016) https://www.skepticality.com/medical-nonsense/

Science-Based Medicine: Exploring issues and controversies in the relationship between science and medicine. Search results for “meditation”
https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?s=meditation

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.