Should You Meditate?
Here’s what science has to say.
Posted Apr 03, 2019
By Ruchika Prakash, Ph.D.
“Should I meditate?”
It’s a question I hear several times a week, mainly from family members, friends, and colleagues who know that I research meditation and its impact on our physical and emotional well-being. I’m not surprised: These days, with meditative poses gracing the cover of magazines, with congressmen—including our local Ohio representative, Tim Ryan—calling for a “Mindful Nation,” and with large corporations like Google, Aetna, and others appointing Chief Mindfulness Officers, meditation can seem like an approachable, attractive panacea. With all of this hype, you would think all you need is to sit down, close your eyes, and breathe, and the life-altering benefits will begin.
But does it really work?
Like every serious scientific question, the answer is this: It’s complicated. Although there is certainly promising evidence, with a handful of well-designed studies showing improvements with mindfulness on our ability to focus and attend to task-relevant information, the findings call for a healthy amount of compassionate skepticism, the sort we don’t usually see in the countless magazine articles celebrating mindfulness as a flawless new faith.
What Research Tells Us About Meditation
In a survey my colleagues and I have conducted of literature on the subject, there were a number of studies that failed to find benefits for attention, especially when compared against what we call an active control group. That is, when people engaging in mindfulness practices were compared against another group engaging in some other active exercises—like relaxation, book reading, or even health education—participants in both groups showed benefits. This suggests that factors we might not have previously considered as impacting the efficacy of mindfulness, such as social support or actively engaging in stimulating activities, may do much to improve our ability to pay attention and, perhaps, our overall well-being as well.
At the same time, there are reasons to approach this skepticism with compassion. With the groundwork laid out by these early studies, federal agencies are now funding large-scale studies that in the next decade will provide us with a substantial evidence base not only either supporting or refuting the superiority of mindfulness training over other wellness approaches, but also providing additional clues to how mindfulness should be approached to maximize its benefits.
Including modestly large sample sizes, pre-selected and pre-registered primary outcome variables (akin to publicly announcing your methods and hypotheses before you collect and analyze data), active comparison groups, and integration of the latest technology in brain imaging, as well as inflammatory markers and genetics, soon we will be able to learn more about the promise of mindfulness and meditation practices, particularly how, where, and when they work best and for whom. Additionally, we are moving in the direction of recognizing that there are multiple pathways to wellness: Whereas mindfulness may work for some individuals, it is certainly not the “only” pathway to well-being and health. Identifying demographic and contextual factors that may modulate the benefits of mindfulness practices will be instrumental in guiding future clinical and outreach efforts surrounding mindfulness.
Finally, and critically, we are moving in the direction of emphasizing the lifestyle aspect of mindfulness. Akin to exercising muscles, we are grounding in the knowledge that mindfulness necessitates a lifestyle change, and reaping benefits from mindfulness practices may require consistent engagement, both through formal and informal practices.
A Few Science-Based Meditation Tips
So, should you meditate? For those of us seeking a respite from information feeds that refresh 24-7 and technology that allows us to be available round the clock, learning to approach the entire array of experiences—sensations, emotions, and thoughts—with mindfulness sounds very appealing, and you can count me among the many who personally tout its benefits. Mindfulness training shows promise as an attention-enhancing tool, with the potential to help us stay calmer and more focused.
And the ability to accept and be with negative thoughts and emotions more reliably could be an invaluable aid to those who struggle with neurological and psychiatric conditions. Although the results are not all positive, and we have a long way to go to understand the benefits one can derive by engaging in these practices, there is certainly promise in this approach.
However, if you decide you want to structure your mindfulness practice based on the science that is currently available, here is a piece of advice: Think about doing it as part of a structured group. Joining a formal program, like mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, dramatically increases your chance of receiving real benefits from your practice. If that is not feasible, and you are still interested in giving it a go, enlist a friend or a family member to help you in your pursuit. There’s still much we don’t know for certain about the effects of meditation, but we do know that social support is an integral part of this work and will help you stick with the program and be held accountable.
And it is important to note that mindfulness is not all about relaxation: It is an experience many people have, but with training in mindfulness, we are working towards reducing the wandering tendencies of the mind, to sustain our attention in the present moment and to develop personal awareness. And that, thankfully, is a much greater and longer-lasting reward than any passing fad can ever deliver.
Ruchika Prakash, Ph.D., directs The Ohio State University’s Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory where she studies the impact of mind-body interventions on attention and serves as a scientific advisor to the Ohio State Neurological Institute’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance.
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