What Do Meditation Mental Health Studies Really Tell Us?


Catherine Kerr of the Contemplative Studies Initiative provides a critique of positive findings in her own area of research. “Is the general public overvaluing and misunderstanding the significance of scientific studies of meditation and the brain?” asks Kerr in her Huffington Post blog. “These were the questions that I and my scientific and scholarly colleagues wrestled with at our 1-day meeting at the Mind and Life House in Amherst, Massachusetts, over the summer that was called in response to fulsomely positive articles in the media.”

Kerr reviews some studies and media stories, and notes some of the factors that were left out, like how many people may have had worse problems after their meditation training. She then suggests that the best solution may be a critical-thinking approach which often itself mimics mindfulness meditation.

“Given the likelihood that some of these trumpeted findings are not true, what should an interested newcomer to contemplative practice do?” writes Kerr. “Here is where an open-minded form of curiosity about one’s own experience could be helpful as one embarks on a practice, asking oneself questions like: what does this contemplative practice really feel like as I do it? What do I feel in my body when I practice? What do I feel later in the day? What does it feel like when I practice two days in a row? By starting to ask these types of questions and then listening deeply to the responses that follow, you may be able to develop your own “gut sense”. Ultimately, it may be this development of “gut sense” (which several early stage brain studies focusing on the insular cortex suggest may be facilitated by mindfulness practice (!)) that will help us as we inevitably, each one of us, have to face situations where a medical therapy or behavioral practice is offered in the context of real scientific uncertainty.”

Why Do Studies of Meditation and the Brain Matter? (Huffington Post, November 10, 2014)


  1. Here is my comment I made on the article, which probably no one will ever read:

    Steve McCrea · Top Commenter · CASA Supervisor at Casa
    It’s interesting to hear this appropriately skeptical approach taken with regard to meditation studies. It makes me wonder why the exact same provisos and cautions aren’t applied to studies involving medication use for mental illness symptoms? In particular, observations that this science is in its infancy, that the effect sizes are often small, that initial studies often favor the intervention but are not later replicated, and that not all members in the group benefit, and some may in fact deteriorate, all of these would apply 100% to any medication study you could mention. Yet we let it slide that the average change for significance with antidepressants is a mere 3 points on the HAM-D scale, and that placebos do almost as well as antidepressants, and that a small but significant subset of antidepressant users experience some rather intense and extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous side effects, such as akathesia, manic reactions, depersonalization and increased suicidal thinking. Pointing out these very reasonable concerns often gets one attacked as “pill-shaming” or “discouraging people from taking their medication.” In fact, the very appropriate “black box” warning on antidepressants has been criticized because it slowed the long-term increase in antidepressant use among teens, which is exactly what it should have done, base on the assumption that somehow these people who stopped “taking their meds” were at more danger, when they may actually have been at LESS danger due to recognizing they were responding badly to treatment.

    It feels like there’s a bit of a double standard in operation here. The writing of this article correctly frames the skeptical attitude necessary for real science to operate. It is puzzling to me why this same scientific honesty does not appear to be applied to research or publications regarding psychiatric medications.

    —- Steve

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  2. Steve
    Meditation is for free but the drugs are products that depend on marketing. The Promotional Research comes from Universities dependent on funding to survive. We all know the bio model is mostly fraud anyway.

    I was treated at a Hospital connected to a University in Ireland, and I can substantiate suppression of suicidal reaction attached to drugs this University endorsed.

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    • I agree 100%. The double standard is pretty blatant and obvious to anyone not invested in the current system financially or professionally. I’d have no problem with them doing experiments with drugs if they were actually scientific about it, but they totally aren’t. If the standards described in this article were applied to the literature on psych drugs, we’d see a 95% reduction in their use immediately. The only support for any of them is for short-term symptom reduction, and even then it only works for a limited part of the population and exposes the user to huge possible side effects beyond anything the worst results from meditation could conceivably cause. But we need to be careful about overreaching regarding meditation, while we can give out these drugs like candy, in the absence of any scientific evidence to support their extensive long-term use. I think the comparison says a lot about where the psych community is regarding scientific honesty.

      — Steve

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  3. It may be just a little misplaced to apply all the placebo-controlled trial to things like psychotherapy, meditation etc. They are complex interventions and cannot be effectively measured and controlled and any results are likely to be confounded by a myriad of other factors.

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