Wait, So Does Meditation Actually Work or Not?

Depending on which news account you read, a recently published meta-analysis of meditation studies either confirmed the therapeutic value of the practice or proved that it’s not so great after all. For example, Time reported that the studies reviewed showed we need to take meditation “more seriously as medicine,” while an Australian news site emphasized that meditation “lacked evidence of leading to better health.”

So should we all assume the lotus position or what?

First, some context. The analysis, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, examined 47 studies that included 3,515 participants. The participants in those studies practiced a range of meditation techniques, for different periods of time, with varying levels of training. You can divide the types of meditation studied into two general camps: mindfulness and mantra.

In mantra-based meditation, you repeat certain words or sounds. For instance, in Kirtan Kriya meditation you chant the syllables sa, ta, na, ma. In Transcendental Meditation, after a training period, you’re given your own personal mantra. Often referred to as TM, this is what Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld, David Lynch, and a seemingly ever-growing roster of celebrities swear by. Even Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted about trying to learn TM.

This meta-study, though, found no evidence that mantra meditation helped with depression, anxiety, attention, sleep, weight loss, quality of life, or pain. That’s curious, considering the many claims that have been made for TM recently. The results don’t mean that TM has been found to be bogus, only that in the studies that researchers deemed rigorous enough for inclusion in the review (only 3 percent of published trials) TM fell short.

Mindfulness meditation fared better. In mindfulness meditation, the emphasis is on nonjudgmental awareness of emotions and thoughts. The review found moderate evidence that mindfulness meditation improved anxiety and depression and lowered pain. So what does moderate mean? For depression, the review found improvements of 10 to 20 percent. “These small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary-care population but without the associated toxicities,” the authors write.

That’s a pretty big deal, particularly when you consider that about one in 10 Americans takes antidepressants. And it’s an even bigger deal when you take into account that the people involved in these studies usually had fairly brief instruction in how to meditate and that the trials themselves weren’t very long (about three to five weeks). It makes you wonder how much better they’d be after a year of practice.

Madhav GoyalThe lead author of the study is Madhav Goyal—the guy on the left—an assistant professor of general internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. When I spoke with him via Skype, he was in India, in a small town at the base of the Himalayas, where he’s conducting research on rural health and meditation. Goyal started meditating about 10 years ago, and these days practices mindfulness meditation for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.

Or tries to, anyway. He admitted sometimes deadlines get in the way.

The findings surprised him in a couple of ways. “For some of the participants, the amount of meditation they did was very small,” Goyal said. “That we saw anything was kind of neat. But we only saw it for mindfulness meditation, and we really saw nothing for TM, so there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. Just because we didn’t find any evidence for many of the outcomes, one shouldn’t conclude that these either don’t work or that we’ve shown that they don’t work.”

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