CheerfulWarrior

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Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?

Note to self. Even short mindfulness training improves Working Memory Capacity (WMC):

In both cases the (A)OSPAN task requires the subject to memorize a few letters while solving simple mathematical equations under time constraints.

TODO: How important is WMC? Are there studies showing meditation resulting in those benefits of improved WMC?

TODO: Are the improvements present also in people without deficiency?

TODO: Learn more about ANOVA/MANOVA (the statistical framework used in all the studies in the field) and figure out whether Zeidan, Fadel, et al. "Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental trainingq." (2010) contradicts the above results.

What are your greatest one-shot life improvements?

Reading 'Say Goodnight to Insomnia'. I struggled with horrible insomnia, now I have a ridiculous control over my sleep.

Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?

One more thing that I think I haven't voiced clearly enough: If you have your sources at your fingertips and want to share them in a comment, I will be grateful for that. It just might take me a while before I get to them.

Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?
I'm not saying that it's wrong to ask for a more detailed analysis, but I suspect that you might not get very many answers.

I think your prediction is likely correct. My another motivation (which I didn't want to name, not to seem hostile), was precisely increasing the cost of posting an answer.

In my previous attempt at answering this question I found that there was a lot of people flooding me with large amounts of vague references. The cost of sifting through those outweighed the benefit (if any) of broadening my search space. To be honest, it was all noise and no signal. But then again, I wasn't posing the question to a rationalist community.

But most LW readers aren't experts at verifying the validity of psychological studies; I know that I'm not.

I'm not either. But the manipulations and shortcomings I've seen so far were painfully obvious. Maybe I missed some, but still I would rather trust my honest scrutiny, even if lacking expertise in the field, than the academics and journal editors in the field whose incentive system I don't understand.

Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?

Thanks for a thoughtful and provoking comment. I wanted to elaborate on my methodology before I start my search, and your comment was an excellent prompt for that.

All of that is a long precursor to saying "Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?" and "Are there good reasons for a typical reader of LessWrong to invest their time and effort into meditation practice?" are subtly different questions, so it would be wrong to literally equate them.

I agree those are different questions. My purpose in starting this post is gathering scientific data that helps answer the latter question. I admit there might be reasons to invest in meditation practice that are not based on scientifically proven benefits (e.g., curiosity, sense of novelty, sense of belonging to a community). At the same time, I hope that most LW readers attach very little weight to those non-evidence-based reasons to meditate, just like I do.

So I want to answer the first question. The second question reveals my motivation and limits the scope of the first question. For example, I'm not interested in such potential benefits like 'gaining enough willpower to voluntarily starve yourself to death or voluntarily set yourself aflame'.

The second is the answer we really care about, the first is one input which would, if available, fully resolve the question instead of leaving is in a state of uncertainty. You're entitled to arguments, but not (that particular) proof.

I'm glad that you raise this point because I wanted to comment today on my standards of proof anyway.


Let's start with the easy to verify claims that I generalise as: 'After only few weeks of regular practice, I sometimes notice impulses when they arise and simply let them fade away, instead of succumbing to them. Sure, often I still act like I used to, but I'm starting to see a change for the better.' This is very easy to verify. For such claims, I will treat an absence of a strong proof as a strong proof of absence. Here is a sample study protocol (for illustrative purposes only, I don't claim it's well thought-out):

1. Gather people who claim to spend too much time compulsively on social media (and in this day and age, who doesn't?)

2. Give them a smartphone app and a browser extension that tracks how much time they spend on social media.

3. Randomly instruct them to meditate for x minutes a day or lie down for a nap for x minutes a day.

4. Each day ask them on their smartphone whether they did their meditation session/nap time and give them a shame-free, nuisance-free option to answer 'yes' or 'no'.

5. Do some statistics juggling and publish.


There are of course those who claim that the benefits require more investment. For example, the Goenka's organisation is one of the leading schools of insight meditation and claims that one needs to finish their 10-day retreat and then meditate for a year, two hours a day, in order to reap benefits (or, more precisely, that this is the maximum investment needed before the benefits become apparent). This is still within reach of a sufficiently motivated person, but well beyond what can be tested through a random trial. In that case, a sample study that I would deem sufficient would be:

1. Gather people undertaking their 10-day retreat.

2. Before they start, measure the metrics of interest (more on that later)

3. After the retreat, poll them periodically (e.g., monthly or weekly) to see whether they maintain their 2 hours a day practice.

4. After a year measure again the metrics of interest.

5. Do some statistics juggling and publish.


If the benefits require even greater commitment, I would argue that any evidence of such benefits becomes irrelevant, thanks to the second question. Even if you promise me living the rest of my days in a state of never-ending orgasm, on the condition that I first spend a few years locked up in a monastery, I'm not going to do that.

In the case of meditation, people usually begin the practice to have mental well-being or greater happiness

Do you have some sources to back this up? I've heard many declared reasons why people begin their meditation practice, and it was quite a diverse set, none seemed dominant. But my sample was never representative. Until proven... er, until argumented otherwise, I reject this assumption.

which is among the outcomes least amenable to reliable objective observation.

As per Sandvik, E., Diener, E., & Seidlitz, L. (1993). Subjective well-being: The convergence and stability of self-report and non-self-report measures. Journal of Personality, 61(3), 317-342, there are other measures that are well correlated with subjective well-being under normal circumstances. For example, you can simply ask subject's friends and family how happy they seem. Or you can request the subject to recall negative and positive events from their life and see how many they come up with in a short amount of time.

(Side note: it would be fascinating to see whether those measures diverge more after a meditation training. That is, whether meditators report higher well-being but don't show the usual signs of it.)

(Confession: I have only skimmed through that paper, after finding it referenced in The Happiness Lab)

If it happens to also do something that could be reliably measured with a medical instrument, that would be a bit outside the point.

I don't buy this at all. If the only observable benefit of me meditating is that I used to self-report average well-being of 5.17 out of 10, and now I self-report 7.39 on average, but:

  • my measurable indicators of stress levels and anxiety remain unchanged
  • there is no significant change to my relationships
  • people around me don't see me being any happier
  • there is no change in my addictive/compulsive behaviours
  • the frequency of me using the word 'd**khead' in my tweets has not dropped

Then:

1. I don't find this change of self-reported well-being something that's worth pursuing at all.

2. Even if I wanted to pursue it, I can achieve it with less demanding training protocol: Install an app for spaced repetition and commit to memory: 'Whenever asked, claim that you are super happy'. I can achieve this lasting result in probably less than 5 minutes of total investment.

Meditation shares with nutritional science (also a wrecked landscape of low-quality studies that fail to answer our real questions) that performing the study relies on the subjects to reliably do something with a huge, short-term cost and an uncertain, long-term benefit

I agree that nutritional science is a mess but I disagree with your diagnosis of why that is the case. There are several characteristics of nutrition and eating that make scientific scrutiny very difficult, and those characteristics are not shared with meditation:

  • What we eat is largely determined by the environment we find ourselves in (e.g, it's nearly impossible for me to have a fresh salad if I don't have a fridge in the office or an affordable store selling good quality salads nearby). On the other hand, most of us have the power to decide whether to meditate at some point during the day or not. (Ok, I guess parents of small children should be excluded from any meditation studies.)
  • We eat many times a day, almost always with different parameters. So accurate tracking is extremely tedious and would probably require carrying a scale with you at all times, and demanding detailed datasheets from all the restaurants you visit. On the other hand, we can reliably tell how much time we spend meditating. (Situation would be much more difficult if the meditation teachers suggested that for example we meditate for 30 seconds, within every 5-minute period. Luckily, meditation recommendations seem to focus on designated meditation sessions, with clear start and finish.) Also, society is not going to shame you for breathing without being aware of it, so you have less incentive to lie.
  • We have habits pertaining to eating. Some of those are even unconscious. Imposing changes on our eating habits might cause significant suffering that persists until the change is completely abandoned. You are not going to be grumpy for an entire day, feel pain in your stomach and fantasise about being un-mindful just because you promised a researcher to observe your breath for 20 minutes later today.

Another, smaller, point I'd like to make is that this post is attempting to perform its own meta-analysis, but with a higher quality bar than academic meta analyses. I don't think crowdsourcing the best studies of meditation is likely to work this way. If you are interested in running a project to identify the top studies of meditation, I think you would need to identify all the relevant studies, get individuals who are interested in your project to review them, then collate the results. Just asking "the crowd" for the best studies they happen to have on hand I think is likely to fail regardless of what the evidence is.

That's a valid point. Crowdsourcing meta-analysis would be great but that's not my intention. I expect this post to turn into my own notebook. I still expect that this will be beneficial to me because:

  • I hate writing, and in this format I can split a long meta-analysis article into smaller pieces, published as soon as they are ready, which makes it more bearable.
  • I still expect that some people will read what I write, and keep me in check if I write something stupid or biased.
  • While I don't expect to be flooded by high-quality studies, I do hope that people will suggest new ways of how I might find them.
  • The added motivation of a possible 'I told you so' at the end of this road.
  • Increased confidence in my findings, so that hopefully I don't revisit this subject for the third time in a few years.
Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?

But then all the readers have to perform that work and duplicate each other's efforts, in addition to the commenter (answerer) doing it. And the answerer has to perform that work anyway, in order to establish whether the meta-analysis is comprised of decent quality publications.

This is especially true when the articles are paywalled and this verification costs not only time and effort, but also money (or at least more effort in circumventing the paywall).

There is also a pragmatic reason: When challenging people's beliefs and asking them for some evidence, they will often respond by throwing a lot of material at the wall and hoping that something sticks, or more likely that the sceptic gives up (e.g., 'see this 800-pages book for details' or 'look up research of Dr. Xyz' or 'follow the 57 references on this Wikipedia page'). Pointing at a meta-analysis that one hasn't verified is exactly that tactic. And if the answerer has verified the meta-analysis, then picking one of the studies is hardly any work.

Is there any scientific evidence for benefits of meditation?

First, a short backstory:

I looked through scientific research on meditation a few years ago, and much to my surprise and dismay found nothing to support the popular claims of its many benefits. Whenever a new study was touted in pop-science headlines, a tiniest amount of scrutiny would reveal methodological shortcomings at best, or blatant manipulation at worst. I have thus dismissed meditation as belonging to the realm of magical thinking, somewhere between Reiki and Eucharist.

A few facts have lead me to investigate the subject again:

  • LW community in general seems very positive about meditation. This is the most important consideration, as it means that either way I will improve my model of the world at the end of this research: Either meditation is helpful and I will gain a new tool in my toolbox, or it's not and I will learn to put less trust in the LW community.
  • When doing my literature review few years ago, I didn't know a rationalist community that could criticise my efforts and so I might have missed something. Hopefully, once I start posting here, this question will gain enough attention for people to point out my omissions.
  • Sam Harris believes in benefits of meditation and I trust that guy. However, I won't be surprised if that's explained away by him having a blind spot here.

What made me restart this investigation now in particular is a brief discussion that I had with another LW reader under Kaj_sotala's recent post A non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence: introduction and preamble, as well as the warm reception that the post has received (and for good reasons, I think it's valuable regardless of which way this investigation will go).

I'm going to purposefully keep to myself my personal history with meditation (or lack thereof), and any ideological bias that I might have against or in favour of meditation. All of that information is irrelevant in the context of this question, and would only serve to clog judgement.

Tips/tricks/notes on optimizing investments

Looks like all/most of those answers are for US residents?

A non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence: introduction and preamble
is there anything that might change your mind? Scientific papers? Meta-analysis studies?

Yes, studies with good methodologies and decent sample sizes would make me question my stance. If they were replicated, that would completely change my mind. As I mentioned in my other comments, I have arrived at my present beliefs by doing a literature review few years ago.

I'm a bit more sceptical about meta-analyses since a lot of papers published on the subject are of terribly low quality (or at least were, when I looked into it).

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