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Fact Vs Fiction: Meditation

In recent history, the practice of meditation has gained widespread popularity in the West as a tool to improve mental health. But are all of the supposed benefits backed by science? A relatively recent meta-analysis conducted may provide some useful insight into the topic at hand.

A meta-analysis is a review of all of the existing scientific literature posted to date on a certain subject. It is for this reason that meta-analyses are considered the highest quality of scientific research. The study that we will dissect this week collected the findings of 47 studies with 3515 participants. The most common meditation techniques implemented were mindfulness training (the practice of maintaining one's awareness of the present moment) and self-transcendence (the continued repetition of mantra which leads to a lack of deliberate awareness of any particular thing). Furthermore, the meditation protocols studied varied in its use of religion, the qualifications (or lack thereof) of the instructor, and its use of other health practices such as yoga and ayurveda. On average, the participants meditated for about 20 minutes every day for 8 weeks.

Researchers found common trends throughout the literature. They found that mediation improved anxiety, depression, stress, and pain. Unsurprisingly, these effects were more profound when participants meditated for longer durations of time and on a consistent basis. Interestingly, researchers found that meditation had no effect on positive emotion. This means that meditation can alleviate negative emotion but does not increase positive emotion. Contrary to popular conception, meditation does not increase weight loss, increase sleep quality, or decrease substance use.

As with any scientific paper, it is important to critically analyze its results before applying it to our own lives. Although positive effects were observed, many of these studies did not control for the placebo effect. In other words, the positive effects observed may have been inflated as a result of study participants that anticipated a positive benefit from meditation beforehand. Additionally, researchers found that mindfulness meditation was no more effective than an exercise regime. Therefore, if you are already exercising on a regular basis and don’t have that much free time to spare, a meditation routine may not be necessary for you.

Nonetheless, these results show promise. Given that mindfulness meditation is a skill that requires deliberate instruction and practice, health enthusiasts should seek out the expertise of an experienced practitioner. To maximize its health benefits, meditators should try to meditate for at least 20 minutes every day. Happy meditating!

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  1. Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M. S., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D. D., Shihab, H. M., Ranasinghe, P. D., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. B., & Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357–368.

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