MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Having yesterday been to a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event on MEDITATION in Cambridge (my home town since last year) I had to think about the subject quite a bit. As I have hardly covered this topic on my blog, I am today trying to briefly summarise my view on it.

The first thing that strikes me when looking at the evidence on meditation is that it is highly confusing. There seem to be:

  • a lack of clear definitions,
  • hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality,
  • lots of people with ’emotional baggage’,
  • plenty of strange links to cults and religions,
  • dozens of different meditation methods and regimen,
  • unbelievable claims by enthusiasts,
  • lots of weirdly enthusiastic followers.

What was confirmed yesterday is the fact that, once we look at the reliable medical evidence, we are bound to find that the health claims of various meditation techniques are hugely exaggerated. There is almost no strong evidence to suggest that meditation does affect any condition. The small effects that do emerge from some meta-analyses could easily be due to residual bias and confounding; it is not possible to rigorously control for placebo effects in clinical trials of meditation.

Another thing that came out clearly yesterday is the fact that meditation might not be as risk-free as it is usually presented. Several cases of psychoses after meditation are on record; some of these are both severe and log-lasting. How often do they happen? Nobody knows! Like with most alternative therapies, there is no reporting system in place that could possibly give us anything like a reliable answer.

For me, however, the biggest danger with (certain forms of) meditation is not the risk of psychosis. It is the risk of getting sucked into a cult that then takes over the victim and more or less destroys his or her personality. I have seen this several times, and it is a truly frightening phenomenon.

In our now 10-year-old book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we included a chapter on meditation. It concluded that “meditation appears to be safe for most people and those with sufficient motivation to practise regularly will probably find a relaxing experience. Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Even today, this is not far off the mark, I think. If I had to re-write it now, I would perhaps mention the potential for harm and also add that, as a therapy, the risk/benefit balance of meditation fails to be convincingly positive. 

PS

I highly recommend ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events to anyone who likes stimulating talks and critical thinking.

14 Responses to Random thoughts on meditation

  • Somehow, I suspect your thoughts are rarely random.

    It’s great to see a competent thinker address a topic that’s new to their scrutiny. There are lots of subjects where my ignorance prevents the formation of an opinion (free will, for example), so I focus my enthusiasm on enquiry and testing ideas to destruction – some fail quite quickly, fuelling even more curiosity about how folk fall for them.

    Sceptics in the pub is an excellent forum. Café Scientifique is worth a visit. In Shrewsbury, there’s Hmmm Squad with a vibrant and eclectic range of topics hitting the gang each month. They’re all always well-attended.

  • “Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Your spelling is certainly week, Sorry I mean weak”

  • There is no doubt, you have no thorough own experience with meditation, otherwise you would not have made such a superficial “bold marked” conclusion on this subject, in my opinion..

    Meditation is a useful way to “reset” your mind after a busy day, and a big help to keep you mentally healthy and to release inner stress.

    Mental illness is becoming one of the defining global health challenges of the 21st century..
    Medition now is an very important tool to keep your mind healthy, you will positive experience his value when you practice this on daily basis.

    20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating.
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201309/20-scientific-reasons-start-meditating-today

    Depression in the UK: The Facts and Figures You Should Know.
    https://www.mytherapyapp.com/blog/overcome-depression-uk-infographic-2017

    How meditation could be beneficial in schools.
    https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/how-meditation-could-be-beneficial-in-schools-10355650.html

    • ok, you know better what experience I have than I.
      congratulation!
      I did not know that meditation enables you do that too.
      in any case, I asked you for evidence, and you keep supplying rubbish.

      • Edzard said: “and you keep supplying rubbish”.

        In response to your comment, I think we need more scientific educated women, they can better put things into perspective and bring more wisdom to science.. It is obvious that the skeptical movement is heavily dominated by men.
        There is no balance, a rational (dogmatic) view prevails..

  • There is no doubt, you have no thorough own experience with meditation, otherwise you would not have made such a superficial “bold marked” conclusion on this subject, in my opinion..

    Meditation is a useful way to “reset” your mind after a busy day,
    and a big help to keep you mentally healthy and to release inner stress.

    Mental illness is becoming one of the defining global health challenges of the 21st century..
    Medition now is an very important tool to keep your mind healthy, you will positive experience his value when you practice this on daily basis..

    20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201309/20-scientific-reasons-start-meditating-today

    How meditation could be beneficial in schools
    https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/how-meditation-could-be-beneficial-in-schools-10355650.html

  • Practicing meditation helps keeping your mind more relaxed, you can say it helps to prevent mental issues.. The own experience will convince even you ;). Nothing more and nothing less…

    • “Practicing meditation helps keeping your mind more relaxed”
      this may be true [contrary to your blind assumption, I did a form of meditation once], but it has little to do with mental illness.
      perhaps you want to read up about evidence before you state nonsense?

  • Hello,
    I came here specifically to have Mr Ernst’s thoughts on meditation. I’m glad the article is here.
    I would like to know if the mention of “hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality” includes those conducted by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. He’s the author of a book I read, entitled “Altered Traits / The Science of Meditation”.
    All the best,
    Elisa

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