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Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?

by CheerfulWarrior1 min read9th May 202016 comments

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Are there good reasons for a typical reader of LessWrong to invest their time and effort into meditation practice? I'm going to do a literature review and will keep adding answers here but contributions from others are more than welcome. Some ground rules for the answers:

  • Only links to scientific papers + ideally a short commentary (summary and criticism where applicable), please.
  • Studies that have been independently replicated are especially welcome. In such cases, please post the replications as well.
  • No meta-analyses, please. The last time I did a literature review on the subject, most papers were of embarrassingly low quality and a meta-analysis can easily obscure that. This rule does not introduce bias: if a meta-analysis is based on high quality studies, then those individual studies are admissible here.
  • For any supposed benefit, meditation should be compared with other means of gaining that benefit. Either in the linked paper, or in the commentary.
  • Participants' self-reporting on their internal mental states (emotions, thoughts, etc.) is not considered reliable or informative for the purpose of this post. Note: self-reporting on physical behaviours is admissible, although it's best if it's based on some tracking methodology rather than just memory.
  • If you aren't sure whether your contribution meets those criteria, please post a comment instead of an answer.

There are no rules for the comments, other than basic civility. Anything that contributes to the discussion, including criticism of the rules above, is more than welcome. In fact, I'm going to write in comments some of the backstory and my thoughts before embarking on the search for answers.

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1 Answers

Hello, new to the community, so please forgive / correct me if I'm making obvious missteps here.

I think you're viewing this the wrong way, evidenced by the fact that you have actually asked two separate but related questions. First, is there scientific evidence for benefits of meditation? And then second, are there good reasons for a typical reader to invest time and effort into practice?

The first question is asking for scientific evidence, and you seem like you've set a pretty high bar here. This leads me to believe that you've pretty much decided that meditation is fraudulent and want to be convinced otherwise. I don't think this will happen. Because you're starting from a point of doubt, you're always going to be fighting a really uphill journey with meditation. Not that skepticism is bad, but when you sit for a meditation session and just spend 20 minutes thinking "this is horseshit" - you're not going to make progress.

The evidence for meditation comes out of meditation. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Luckily, meditation is not asking for much. There's no "lower bound" of the practice: many meditators say a difference can be made with just 1 minute a day. Unless you think you are so optimized that you can't waste 1 minute of your day - you can run your own n=1 experiment and find your own results. It's actually about inquiry, so you shouldn't have trouble. Meditation is about noticing your own thoughts and recognizing them as thoughts. This brings me to your second question.

Are there benefits for the typical reader? I'd argue yes. Being able to recognize your thoughts as thoughts is an important skill for responding to your life in an effective way. Otherwise we get stuck in patterned and cyclic thinking, or waste time rehashing old mistakes endlessly, or worrying about things we can't control.

For me this is self-evident.