Meditation: The Good & The Hype

Having traveled in and out of meditation circles over the years, I’ve seen much hype, placebo effect and outright self-deception. I’ve also experienced some benefits, but not nearly as much as my naive, idealist mind had hoped for — as it likewise hoped for in Christianity, Acupuncture, Marxism, Homeopathy and my many other adventures. (see my other follies here)

In January 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Evidence-based Practice Center in Baltimore, MD (where I did my MPH), have done a large meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of meditation.  They reviewed 17,801 citations and included 41 trials with 2,993 participants.

Article here:  Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-beingA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. January 2014.   See this Jama article for an updated version.

Results were:

Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate SOE for improvement in anxiety (effect size [ES], 0.40; CI, 0.08 to 0.71 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.22; CI, 0.02 to 0.43 at 3–6 months), depression (ES, 0.32; CI, −0.01 to 0.66 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.23; CI, 0.05 to 0.42 at 3–6 months); and pain (ES, 0.33; CI, 0.03 to 0.62); and low SOE for improvement in stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life. We found either low SOE of no effect or insufficient SOE of an effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating, sleep, and weight. In our comparative effectiveness analyses, we did not find any evidence to suggest that these meditation programs were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with. Only 10 trials had a low risk of bias. Limitations included clinical heterogeneity, variability in the types of controls, and heterogeneity of the interventions (e.g., dosing, frequency, duration, technique).



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Meditation: The Good & The Hype

  1. Thanks. This helps me on several levels. For one, I am taking a Wellness class this semester and am doing my final project on Mindfulness Meditation, so this research paper will help. More importantly, I have started a Mindfulness Meditation program for myself based partly on the teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn and partly on Sam Harris. I am not expecting miracles, but my biggest issue right now is an inability to recognize and be aware of my emotions, especially strong “negative” ones, and the meditation so far has helped me increase my awareness (or so it seems).

  2. @MichaelB: Great – glad you will be able to use it.

  3. Earnest

    These numbers seem subjectively correct. About in line with my personal experience.

  4. Earnest

    I also like the theodolite imagry! Very appropriate, but can be quite inaccurate on choppy seas!

  5. BTW, Earnest, it is a sextant, not a theodolite. Just saying! 🙂

  6. To readers:
    Concerning the “effect size” stats:

    An effect size is typically calculated by taking the difference in means between two groups and dividing that number by their combined (pooled) standard deviation. Intuitively, this tells us how many standard deviations’ difference there is between the means of the intervention (treatment) and comparison conditions; for example, an effect size of .25 indicates that the treatment group outperformed the comparison group by a quarter of a standard deviation.

    Cohen (1988) proposed rules of thumb for interpreting effect sizes:
    .20 is a “small” effect size
    .50 is a “medium” effect size
    .80 is a “large” effect size

  7. abby

    One of the benefits of meditation that I found is that it helped me when I had my very first anxiety attack. my heart was beating so fast for 8 hours and the only time it started to beat normally again is when I meditated. Since then whenever I feel anxious or stress I always meditate so that I can avoid having another anxiety attack. I never really believed that meditation until I tried it and helped me when I needed it the most, now I’m recommending it to my friends and family.

    – Abby

  8. @ abby,
    What do the stats above tell you about recommending meditation for anxiety? Just curious if you understood my post. BTW, I removed the obvious advertizing in both your name and linkage — I don’t support business here that disguise themselves as comments.

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