Is meditation good for you?

Susan Blackmore

Published in New Scientist, 6 July 1991, No.1776, 30-33

It may not make you happier, and if you’re depressed it could even make you worse. But some forms of meditation may offer insights into the nature of human identity.

Are you tempted by the prospect of a reversal of ageing, increased intelligence, improved relationships or irreversible world peace? These are just some of the benefits of meditation promised by the Transcendental Meditation organisation. Admittedly, it doesn’t seem very plausible. Such claims imply that sitting still silently repeating a phrase – one form of meditation practiced by the followers of the TM movement – can have profound physical, psychological and even sociological effects. Indeed, it sounds so implausible that many people simply dismiss meditation out of hand.

Sceptics may also note that selling meditation can be very lucrative. The Transcendental Meditation movement, led by The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, once the Beatles’ guru, owns multimillion pound mansions all over the world. It is now establishing special towns, such as the one near Skelmersdale in Lancashire, where devotees can achieve “Heaven on Earth” at a price.

Nevertheless, various forms of meditation have been practised for centuries, and most of its practioners are anything but commercially minded. They are more likely to claim that meditation reduces stress or increases awareness than that it produces the wide-ranging effects claimed for TM. So are there really any benefits from meditating?

In answering this, we should keep two distinct questions in mind. First, are the claims of those with special techniques and vested interests valid? Secondly, and more important from a scientific point of view, does any form of meditation have any effects – harmful or beneficial?

Scientific research on meditation began nearly 40 years ago but is fraught with problems, not least because there are almost as many methods of meditation as people who meditate. One simple classification divides meditation into concentrative and mindfulness forms. In concentrative approaches, the meditator attends to one object in view or one idea or problem or as in the case of TM, to a mantra – a phrase or word repeated silently. This can lead to a state of feeling oneness with the object of concentration, to the exclusion of worries, stray thoughts or external events.

In open or mindfulness meditation the whole of experience is the object of attention. The meditator sits, often with eyes open, and does not discriminate between thoughts, sights and sounds. In this kind of meditation, there arises a sense of a flow of experience – undifferentiated, undescribed and not commented on. Rather than disappearing, the world seems fresh, new and as though never seen before.

In both concentrative and mindfulness meditation, stray thoughts are not repressed or pushed away but simply let go. The aim, at least in the short term, is to calm the mind by letting it settle down. Thoughts and feelings, which might otherwise become overwhelming or distracting, simply come and go. Eventually they may not come at all.

Increasing skill is said to lead to a series of experiences described, perhaps, as feelings of joy, floating, flying or “acceptance of things as they are” – the descriptions vary enormously from one system to another. Further blissful states, often known as samadhi or nirvana, may then happen. In some systems of meditation, these “higher states” are religiously cultivated. In others, they are simply accepted as natural by-products, not to be taken too seriously, and certainly not to be clung to or seen as an achievement. The forms of meditation that are run on commercial lines tend to pay particular heed to achieving the higher states, whereas in Japanese Zen Buddhist training, for example, a good meditation might be described as “just sitting”.

This leads to a paradox in meditation. Aiming to progress along “the path” of experiences is counterproductive. And yet there must be a path if changes occur through practice. But what changes? Does a special state of consciousness arise, is a measurable skill learnt, is there some kind of insight, or what?

Some of the earliest research assumed that meditation involved a special state and set out to find out what it was. In the 1950s, scientists had established that dreaming is associated with a certain pattern of electrical activity in the brain which could be recorded on an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. They hoped that the EEG would provide a kind of window into a person’s mental state.

In the waking brain, the frequency of the electrical activity varies, with lower frequencies – typically less than 14 cycles per second – happening more often during relaxed states than when the brain is alert and active. One of the most distinctive patterns is the alpha rhythm – electrical activity between 8 and 13 cycles per second – which is normally present when a person is resting with eyes closed. Early experiments showed that people meditating produce a lot of alpha waves even with their eyes open.

The alpha rhythm is normally blocked – that is, replaced by higher frequency brain waves – if there is a sudden noise or other unexpected stimulus. For normal people, no amount of trying to ignore something will prevent the alpha waves from disappearing. But if the person is repeatedly exposed to the same noise or stimulus, alpha waves eventually persist, despite the disturbance. The blocking of alpha waves seems to be a response to unexpected events. Could meditation also affect this blocking response?

In 1957, EEG machines were becoming small enough to carry around, and two researchers – B.K.Bagchi and S.Wenger of the State University of Iowa – took their apparatus into the mountain caves of Indian yogis. The yogis calmly meditated while the experimenters, with frozen fingers despite their Western winter clothes, banged cymbals behind the yogis, flashed lights in their eyes and even plunged their feet into cold water. Apparently, the alpha rhythm did not disappear in the face of these onslaughts. The findings suggested that the yogis managed sensory withdrawal during meditation.

In 1966, two researchers from Tokyo, Akira Kasamatsu and Tomo Hirai, tested 48 Zen Buddhist priests and their students who had Ben meditating   for between 1 and 20 years. They practised zazen, a passive mindfulness meditation with eyes open. First, the meditators produced fast alpha activity which gradually increased in amplitude and decreased in frequency until, sometimes, waves of between 6 and 7 cycles per second (classed as theta waves) began to appear.

Interestingly, it was the most advanced meditators whose EEG showed the most theta waves. Perhaps even more important, the Zen master classified the students as low, middle or high in advancement, and his classification was a better predictor of the EEG than the years of meditation they had done. This does not answer the question of what is being learnt, but it does at least indicate that measurable progress was taking place.

The researchers also tried blocking the alpha waves. In this case, unlike the Indian yogis, the alpha waves were blocked but the meditators did not habituate to the disturbance. The Japanese Zen Buddhists seemed to be responsive to the stimuli but did not come to expect more. In other words, each stimulus was perceived as new.

This seemed to fit perfectly with the subjective experiences of the two forms of meditation – one excluding the sensory world, the other observing it without comment as though endlessly new and fresh. This neat explanation, however, was not to be sustained. Some later studies, all using TM meditators also found blocking and no habituation, but others reported no blocking or increased blocking – leaving the conclusion totally confused.

More recently, research on the EEG has taken different directions. For example, some investigators have looked to see whether meditation makes the EEG patterns in the left and right hemispheres of the brain more similar – a phenomenon known as EEG coherence. Here we meet a persistent problem in meditation research. Much of the research is now done by members of the TM organization, often at their own Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa. Most of it is published in their own publications, where it is not subject to the normal peer review system of scientific journals. A strong motivation to ”prove” the efficacy of TM could bias the findings.

As far as EEG coherence is concerned, the TM researchers claim that meditation leads to a greater coherence in the electrical activity recorded from the two hemispheres. This spawned the appealing idea that greater coherence could somehow lead to increased creativity and personal growth.However, Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital in London, and also a meditation researcher, points out that increased coherence can happen in many states including epileptic seizure, coma and death – not such a good advertisement for TM.

Nevertheless, in 1982, David Orme-Johnson and his colleagues at MIU tried to determine whether EEG coherence in subjects was influenced by a group of 2500 students meditating a thousand miles away. The researchers found greater coherence on days when the group was meditating. It is not clear, however, whether the subjects knew which days were which, so the effect may have been due to expectation. As Fenwick says: ”If this….proved to be a real effect….then the laws of physics would need rewriting.” It would also be of great interest to parapsychologists, who have long hoped that meditation would provide a state conducive to psychic abilities. But Orme-Johnson’s work has not been replicated and the laws of physics seem relatively safe.

They would not be safe, however, if the ”Maharishi effect” were real. The Maharishi effect, according to the TM movement is that wherever 1 per cent of people regularly meditate, there will be more peace and less crime – a claim regularly challenged by sceptics who have studied crime statistics. Moreover, there are alternative explanations in places such as Fairfield, Iowa. When the MIU and its mass of inward-looking, disciplined, early-to-bed devotees replaced an ailing college full of car-driving, drug-taking young students, it would be surprising if crime rates did not fall.

Another TM claim is that meditation produced warm weather for the pouring of concrete to build a new meditation dome in Fairfield. A little investigation by a maths teacher in Iowa revealed that suppliers of the concrete consult the National Weather Service before preparing a load of concrete, and will not supply concrete if a frost is predicted.

The most famous claim by the TM movement is levitation. Meditators will have spent hundreds of pounds before they are even eligible to take the Sidhi Program, which allegedly trains them first to hover and finally to attain “complete mastery of the skies”. Photographs show meditators airborne in lotus positions, but leave much to be desired as evidence if they conveniently omit to show the ground below. In any case the same effect can be duplicated on film by taking photos, at very fast speeds, of athletes rising by muscular effort alone, as James Randi, magician and arch critic, has shown in his book Flim-Flam. Beyond photographs, however, the successful graduates of the Sidhi Program have not been available for testing. Randi concludes that the Maharishi ”has turned unproved and outdated notions of Eastern mysticism into a pseudoscientific mess”.

We must not, however, allow the excesses of one cult organization to cloud the basic question whether meditation does have any effects. So let us return to the simpler claim: does meditation, in any form, reduce stress? This must be the most common claim for meditation. It is because of this that meditation has been used to treat hypertension. asthma, gum inflammation, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, insomnia and stuttering.

Early research seemed to show that meditation did indeed reduce physiological arousal as measured by heart rate, sweating palms, breathing   rate and blood pressure. Then in 1983, David Holmes, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, pointed out that most of the experiments had simply measured stress before and after meditation and found it lowered. There were no control groups. In his own experiments, he asked one group of experienced TM teachers to meditate for 20 minutes and another simply to rest. In both groups, levels of arousal fell to the same extent. In other words, meditation reduced stress but only as much as rest did. And who would recommend resting twice a day as a cure for asthma or drug abuse?

Holmes’s review raised a storm of protest from meditators and teachers of meditation, but subsequent research has confirmed his conclusion. The standard of experiments has also improved, with more sophisticated control conditions to provide a comparison for the meditators. For example, one method uses “anti-meditation”, where the control subjects have to walk up and down, thinking about problems.

Even if meditation does not reduce arousal more than resting does, it might help people to control their response to threatening situations. So experiments have involved such devices as showing subjects films of varying goryness or giving them IQ tests and telling them they scored badly. In one study, Daniel Goleman and Gary Schwartz, psychologists at Harvard University, found that arousal levels in meditators dropped more than that of non-meditators after watching a gory film. However, Holmes points out, the meditators had, for reasons that are not clear, a higher arousal level before the film. They also reported feeling less anxious, but it is hard to rule out the effects of expectation on subjective measures.

Paul Lehrer, a psychiatrist at the State University of New Jersey, carried out an experiment with his colleagues in which they played loud tones and compared the effects for three groups : subjects in two groups had trained for four weeks in either meditation or progressive muscular relaxation, while those in a third group had had no training. Compared with the control groups, the meditators showed higher arousal while waiting for the tones and a faster drop in heart rate after the tones. The relaxation group reported more muscular relaxations but the meditators more reduction in anxiety.

All this seems to show that while meditation may reduce feelings of anxiety, it does not reduce bodily responses to stress. In other words, if you want to reduce your physiological stress levels, do not turn to meditation. This is an   interesting conclusion, which contradicts some of the claims made for meditation, and yet it fits rather well with a more Buddhist idea of meditation. Buddhists teach that meditation is a means of training the attention to be open and direct, so that the world is seen “as it is” rather than through the confused illusion created by our normally muddled minds.

What does this mean, though, to say that the world is seen “as it is”? Psychologists’ understanding of perception is that it is a constructive process – a human brain builds models or representations of the world on the basis of the information it receives from the senses. Surely there can be no “as it is”. Perhaps what it means is constructing less complex illusions or being less influenced by expectations and desires. In one of the few studies on perceptual changes in meditators, an American psychiatrist, Daniel Brown, and his colleagues at the University of Chicago found increased visual sensitivity in people who had meditated 16 hours a day during a three month retreat. The heavy meditators could detect brief flashes of light and distinguish flashes closer together than a group of people who meditated only two hours a day.

According to expectations

At Bristol, Jane Salmon and I tried to get more directly at the idea of seeing the world “as it is”. What people see is always biased by what they think they are seeing. So we tried to devise a test which would measure the bias. The task was to copy a perspective drawing of a street with houses. If you ask subjects to copy the lines of the windows, roof or pavement, they make large errors in the angle, but turn the picture upside down, so that it no longer looks as much like a street in depth, and they make smaller errors. Presumably the errors happen because people do not see the lines “as they are” but as they think they ought to be.

The question we asked was whether meditation would reduce the errors for the upright picture – in other words allow people to see the design more accurately. We compared a group of experienced Ch’an (Chinese Zen) meditators, who practice open or mindfulness meditation, with a group of novice meditators and with a group of people who had received one lesson in muscular relaxation. A session of meditation or relaxation before the test did not affect the number of errors in copying the lines, but the more experienced meditators did better than the two other groups. Did years of training help them to see the world more “as it is”?

Maybe, but any study of this kind raises yet another methodological problem. If you compare meditators with non-meditators you cannot be sure that they are comparable in other ways. To begin with, Westerners who want to learn meditation are not typical of the rest of the population. They tend to be more anxious and neurotic than average, to report more problems in general and to have taken twice as many drugs as non-meditators.

A way to avoid this problem may be to compare experienced meditators with beginners, as we did, but this raises another problem: only a small proportion of those who begin meditation carry on with it. So again, there will be differences between the groups that are nothing to do with the direct effect of meditation itself. Michael Delmonte, a clinical psychologist in Dublin, found that discontinuing meditation was related to an “unhealthy psychological profile”. People who dropped out were more introverted, had low expectations of meditation, high arousal during rest and a more external locus of control – that is, they tend to attribute things to external rather than internal causes.

Other studies have found that those who respond well to meditation tend to be high on “absorption” – a measure of how easily a person can become totally absorbed in something like a book, film or fantasy world. Delmonte says that those with a history of psychosis and depression respond very negatively to meditation, and it may even trigger suicidal and psychotic behaviour. It is the relatively more stable people who continue. And does it make them any happier? Delmonte says not; meditation is not a hedonistic technique, but that “living at a higher level of awareness has its multitude of rewards”.

This makes one wonder about the relationship between meditation and therapy. Some psychotherapists have thought that meditation could be a useful technique. In view of Delmonte’s research, however, it seems more likely that it is harmful for people with serious problems. Delmonte suggested that they may be confronted with suppressed thoughts and emotion at a rate they cannot cope with, and so become overwhelmed. For the psychologically stable, meditation is obviously more positive. But we still do not know, and cannot measure, just what effects it is having on whom.

All this makes the empirical scientist want to despair. Designing well-controlled experiments to test the effects of meditation seems to be too hard. So do we give up? Certainly these problems are no justification for concluding that there are no effects. Perhaps there are effects that are just not measurable in these ways? If so, what could they be? I would suggest that meditation can, at its best, clear the mind of much of its confusion.

With clarity can come insights which science is only gradually revealing in its particular way. The most obvious is the constructed nature of the world. Most of us assume that there is a real world out there and that we see it in some sense directly. Psychology reveals this to be an illusion – what we perceive is a mental construction. In its different way, meditation can reveal subjectively the extent of our own biases in seeing the world.

Most of us, for example, assume that we are some kind of solid self – a real, acting, deciding, powerful entity which goes on and on through an entire lifetime and perhaps beyond. Psychology is now revealing more and more of the constructed nature of self. The self we value so much is a mental model we have developed through a lifetime and which perhaps has no persistence beyond its similarity (but definitely not identity) from one day to the next.

|Recent experiments have shown that even apparently conscious, deliberate acts begin unconsciously, so that the feeling that “we” decided to act may be an illusion. Fenwick has remarked that through meditation a person is freed from “the illusion that he is ‘doing’”. Perhaps this is what the Buddha meant when he said: “Actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not.”

Of course it is hard to accept that there is no persistent self, whether you are a psychologist dealing with experimental results, or a meditator struggling with experience. Indeed, some people say that scientists never fully accept in their own lives the consequences of their discoveries. And perhaps the training in meditation is so long and hard because we all resist so strongly the idea of our own impermanence.

If these comparisons have any validity, we are wise not to dismiss meditation altogether. Experiments have disproved many of the more extravagant claims, but there may be more to meditation than this. Perhaps the subjective approach of arduous training in meditation and the objective approach of scientific experimentation both lead to the same place. If so, each system must surely have a lot to teach the other.