Tagged: pseudoscience

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

Rating Self-Realization Fellowship & Its Paranormal Claims

Church service and altar at SRF Hollywood Temple
Church service and altar, SRF Hollywood Temple

Ross and Carrie, in their podcast ‘Oh No!’, investigate the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) and rated the SRF on creepiness, dangerousness, and paranormal claims. They both studied the SRF Lessons and attended church services and the World Convocation.

“The stories [of Paramahansa Yogananda told by SRF monks at Convocation] were about how incredibly patronizing the guru was of his devotees.” – Carrie

Oh No, Ross and Carrie! is a podcast about Ross and Carrie’s travels through the world of paranormal claims, fringe science, and spirituality. Their website says “We show up, so you don’t have to”.

Oh No, Ross and Carrie!–The Self-Realization Fellowship (Part 1): Meditate, Meditate, Meditate:

Ross and Carrie immerse themselves in the Self Realization Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda’s eastern-inspired religion that urges little eating, little sleeping, and lots of meditation. Can Carrie and Ross survive in a group where “restlessness of mind” is a cardinal sin?

Oh No, Ross and Carrie!–The Self-Realization Fellowship (Part 2): Overpaying For Silence

After months of anticipation, Ross and Carrie attend the Self Realization Fellowship Convocation, where thousands of SRF devotees gather together. They learn to meditate better, chant for hours at a time, and try to get surly strangers to smile.

In conclusion, Ross and Carrie rated the SRF on a scale of 0 – 10 (0 = none or lowest, 10 = max or highest).

Ross’ and Carrie’s RATINGS

Supernatural/Pseudoscientific = 7.5

Reason: Many extraordinary claims, including that the brain can do fantastical things, read others’ minds, control heart/breath, dying at will, etc

Wallet Draining = 8

Reason: Money is portrayed as evil, give SRF church your money, Lessons are inexpensive, accessories and Convocations are expensive.

Creepiness = 2.5

Reason: Ross and Carrie both thought the people they met at SRF church services and properties seemed normal. [Frankly, I was both creeped-out and intrigued when I first attended SRF church meditation services. My creepy intrigue came from the dimly lit altar with golden-framed images of the six SRF gurus, the trance-like chanting of devotees swaying in their meditation seats, and the smoke and smell of exotic incenses that created a hazy, dream-like atmosphere in the meditation temple.]

Dangerous = 1

Reason: Eating and sleeping is portrayed by SRF and Yogananda as for mortals, some breatharian ideas, notion of asking God before you go see a doctor, etc. [In posts and discussions on this website, I examine the evidence I’ve accumulated and in my opinion SRF is more dangerous than the level rated by Ross and Carrie].

SRF World Convocation 2015, Los Angeles
SRF World Convocation 2015, Los Angeles

Visit and listen to Oh No, Ross and Carrie!for the full podcasts Parts 1 & 2 on The Self-Realization Fellowship

Gurus on the Financial Plane

paper money-min
Kevin Dooley, Paper money, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Secrets to success brought to you by Great Masters of Himalayas?

After lifesaving brain surgery, Dad would have intermittent seizures. In his paranoid hallucinations he’d demand that our family of four pack our belongings into the car so we could flee to the mountains for the end of the world. In early morning hours, the police might call. Dad had to be picked-up at the police station. He’d walked for miles in his pajamas and had been found on top of a neighbor’s parked car, yanking the wiper blades, and ranting about the end of the world.

It was during a period of these events, when I was age 15, that I read a book I’d found in my Dad’s library. The book contained the laws of success that altered my impressionable life when it said:

“I whispered, ‘Who are you?’
In a softened voice, which sounded like chimes of great music, the unseen speaker replied: ‘I come from the Great School of the Masters. I am one of the Council of Thirty-Three who serve the Great School and its initiates on the physical plane.”[1]

The book was Grow Rich! With Peace of Mind: How to earn all the money you need and enrich every part of your life, the sequel to Think and Grow Rich, both books by Napoleon Hill.

Eventually and indirectly the secret formula of success peddled by Napoleon Hill led me to a Hindu-Christian yoga-occult community in Los Angeles. The fringe church, SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship), aligned perfectly with the secret formula of success and occult thinking of Napoleon Hill and the Great School of Masters. I accepted the synchronicity as a sign from the divine.

After a few years on the fringe of the fellowship, I plunged headlong and pledged 14 years of my life to following the rules and vows of the Self-Realization Monastic Order [See my posts on Monasticism]. I believed SRF was my link to the Great School of Masters of the Himalayas that I’d read about in Napoleon Hill’s Grow Rich! With Peace of Mind, sequel to Think and Grow Rich.

“Also termed the ‘law of attraction’ as early as 1906, [New Thought’s] core belief was that thoughts are things”, says Scott Carney in A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment[2]. “In 1908, Andrew Carnegie met a young journalist named Napoleon Hill and asked him to interview the richest people in America to learn their secrets to generating wealth. The project took him almost 20 years, but in 1934, he published Think and Grow Rich, which quickly became one of the best selling books of all time.[3]”

“New Thought created a spiritual framework to explain earthly success”, writes Carney, “Think and Grow Rich formed a recipe and spawned an entire genre of self-help books.

“Hill wrote that the most successful people on earth followed a simple secret: They visualize their own success and cultivate their emotions to feel as if they had already achieved their goals.

“According to Hill’s theory, thoughts are things and our desires act like magnets in the spiritual ether and could attract real world riches.”

Hill’s secrets of success totally synchronized with SRF’s, and its founder’s, Paramahansa Yogananda’s,  teachings and books such as the Law of Success, Scientific Healing Affirmations, Applying the Power of Positive Thinking, Focusing the Power of Attention for Success, Answered Prayers and dozens of other publications. Hill’s and Yogananda’s are occult philosophies that represent the New Thought movement.

“New Thought lent American optimism a sort of a mystical quality”, continues Carney. “It argued that the mind is a force of nature in the same way that gravity is”. Thoughts can make a person rich, cure disease, reverse aging, and achieve any imaginable goal.

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe it can achieve”.
“There are no limitations to the mind except those we acknowledge. Both poverty and riches are the offspring of thought.”
Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill

As a troubled teen, eagerly reading Napoleon Hill’s books in my dad’s library, I didn’t know how gullible and vulnerable I was to occult authorities and magical-thinking. It was a decade and a half after I left the SRF Monastery that I discovered that Think and Grow Rich was part of the occult and New Thought movement.

Meditation is an escape. Or, can be. It was for me. Laws of success can be an escape–pat answers giving comforting certainty. These secret formulas for success are steeped in mystical-, magical-, wishful-thinking.

Meditation is sold by Cadillac-driving gurus as the panacea for human ills. Yogananda, Daya Mata, and Rajneesh (to name only three gurus) tooled around in chauffeur-driven Cadillacs. Meditation is promoted as the key to earthly (and heavenly) success, peace, and happiness.

Laws of success are peddled like snake oil: sometimes wrapped and marked with Om, Bliss, or Nirvana. Placebos for the gullible and cash for the infallible? “Think like I want you to”, says the guru. “Buy my secret formulas, laws of success and meditations and you I will grow rich.”

It pays (can save thousands of dollars and years of time) to doubt the guru’s so-called laws of success and to be a skeptic. [See my post 21 Great Reasons To Think and Be A Skeptic].

Notes

1 “The Great School of Masters! That is the school of wisdom which has persisted secretly in the Himalayas for ten thousand years. Sometimes known as the Venerable Brotherhood of Ancient India, it is the great central reservoir of religious, philosophical, moral, physical, spiritual and psychical knowledge. Patiently this school strives to lead mankind from spiritual infancy and darkness to maturity of soul and final illumination”. Napoleon Hill, Grow Rich! with Peace of Mind, paper, p159. Fawcett Crest Books. 1967. On the same page, Hill substantiates his claim of his visitation by the Great Teachers by quoting from The Great Message: The Lineal Key of the Great School of the Masters [Harmonic Series, 1928 Editions] by Richardson, J. E. [John E.] (1853-1935), an occult, New Thought book.

2 In A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, Scott Carney, Hardcover, 2015

3 ibid “By Hill’s death in 1970, Think and Grow Rich had sold fifteen million copies. Its success has since been dwarfed by The Secret, which has reportedly sold fifty-six million copies worldwide, with approximately the same philosophy”. Footnote pg 114

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”

Skepticism & Nonbelief