Are meditation and mindfulness all they're cracked up to be?

Saturday January 14, 2017

The billion-dollar meditation and mindfulness industry believes it has what many of us are looking for: promises of focused thinking, less stress, increased compassion and creativity abound. 

It’s promises like these that make it a massively popular industry, embraced everywhere from classrooms to Silicon Valley.

There are claims that meditation can do everything from alleviate depression to treat post traumatic stress.

How much of this is based on reliable clinical research, and how should those claims be evaluated? 

Experts like Dr. Belisa Vranich claim that proper breathing, which is a key part of mindfulness, can extend human life.

Meditation apps suggest that just 10 minutes of meditation for 10 days can produce a positive change in a person’s emotional well-being. 

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(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Quirks & Quarks host, Bob McDonald, decided to give meditation a try. His “experiment” was book-ended by a visit to the lab of Dr. Olav Krigolson, a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria. 

Dr. Krigolson measured Bob’s brain waves before and after a 10-day app-based program to see if there were any measurable differences in his brain activity. This was not meant to be scientifically rigorous, but a way of testing some of the claims put out by the mindfulness industry. 

Dr. David Cox, former chief medical officer of Headspace, one of the most popular meditation apps, says that there is evidence that meditation programs like the one that Bob followed can produce results. 

“It’s about doing it little and often that helps you develop the skill and strengthen the mental muscle,” Cox says.

Headspace’s website cites a U.S. study that found that meditating by using the app can help improve working memory and sustained attention after only 20 minutes of daily meditation. 

Dr. Madhav Goyal, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, reviewed this particular study at our request. He says that a single study is never satisfactory from a scientific point of view. 

Headspace claim 1

While there is promising, preliminary evidence that apps can improve certain psychological outcomes such as some symptoms of anxiety and depression, Goyal says more research needs to be done. It’s the only way to determine whether the effects in a single study might be real. But he thinks the findings are interesting and worth trying to replicate. 

Dr. Goyal did a recent review of nearly 50 scientific studies that looked at the effectiveness of robust mindfulness programs in reducing symptoms of mild depression. 

Most of the people that were in these studies would have had mild to moderate symptoms of depression, not severe symptoms of depression. But that said, what we were finding was that the degree of effect in reducing symptoms of depression, mild symptoms of depression, it was about the same as what other studies seemed to be reporting with antidepressants in similar populations. - Dr. Madhav Goyal

Some of the key research in the meditation field comes from Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and Dr. Sara Lazar, at Harvard Medical School. Both have studied the effects of long term meditation. 

In a landmark study, Davidson monitored the neural activity of Buddhist monks while meditating, and found that the gamma wave oscillations of these “professional meditators” was off the charts. Even more surprising was that this same pattern of brain activity persisted when the monks weren’t meditating. 

India Dalai Lama

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, right, attends a prayer session at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, in Patna, India, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010. Bodh Gaya is the town where Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment after intense meditation and became the Buddha. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/The Associated Press)

Similarly, Lazar found marked changes in the gray matter of long-term meditators compared to average meditators. 

The most pronounced changes were in the insula. This is an area that’s involved in integrating sensory experiences with cognitive thinking. And so you could think of that, in a very loose hand-waving sort of way, as the mind-body area.  - Dr. Sara Lazar

Other research also shows that in some cases, meditation can make people feel worse. 

“It can exacerbate depression, it can precipitate psychosis. It can do some harm,” said Dr. Davidson.

Both Davidson and Lazar point out that people who have a history of some psychiatric difficulty might be better suited to a meditation practice under the guidance of a teacher who is also a mental health practitioner. 

But what about meditation apps? 

“The apps are like a book or any other recording or any other things that have existed in the past. I think they’re great as a supplement but I don’t think anything compares to having a teacher that you can talk to about your experience,” Lazar says.

As for Bob McDonald’s meditation experiment?

“When we looked at what was going on in your first Headspace meditation and we compared it to the last Headspace meditation… there appears to be a decrease in alpha activity. I’m not saying you’re a meditation expert, but the trend is in the right direction,” said Dr. Krigolson.

Again, a caution. One test is not definitive proof. But it is a window into what’s happening in the brain of someone who tried to a short stretch of 10-minute meditation sessions.

Listen to Quirks & Quarks entire mindfulness episode here

Bob McDonald

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