By Vexen Crabtree 2018
Meditation is used by many to achieve a sense of peace, tranquillity and relaxation1. This is done by focusing exclusively on a single mental task, such as repeating a word or phrase (a mantra) or visualizing a fixed image, or paying attention to a very narrow event such as breathing, or conducting repetitive manipulations (e.g. rosary beads) in a mindful manner.2,3 It has been a feature of religious practice since prehistory, and is engaged in extensively by some faiths such as Zen Buddhism4. Some claims made about the power of meditation passes into the territory of the absurd, such as those made in Yoga5 (including yogic levitation)6. Meditation works just as well for the religious as for secular folk7.
Meditation can influence our physical bodies in areas where symptoms are typically known to be susceptible to psychosomatic factors (placebo effects and nocebo effects) with some evidence it helps with diseases associated with blood pressure and heart disease8 but also cancer (according to one study)8. The experience of pain is readily influenced by our mental states and meditation is often cited as a positive method of pain control; in some cases it has had a radical effect9. A medical analysis of 47 trials on mental health found that meditation helps with anxiety, depression and pain, and helps a bit with overall quality of life1. But the evidence is that meditation is not better than behavioural therapies (such as exercising more) in combatting mental ills1.
Subconscious psychological factors can alleivate or worsen many symptoms of disease, as our immune system and other bodily functions are effected by our moods and expectations, sometimes with greater effects than you might imagine possible10. By describing what it is possible to accomplish, or what symptoms can be the result of psychology, people can learn to take more control of their health. 'Psychosomosis' is sometimes used to mean medical symptoms that derive from purely (subconscious) psychological factors such as ulcers caused by stress11, but in its wider sense it includes positive effects (i.e., meditation) as well negative (depression causing increased illness). In terms of medicine, the placebo effect describes how suggestion and expectation can have positive results, compared with the nocebo effect wherein our mental states can create and worsen symptoms needlessly.
Some good practices can increase the health of individuals (and of entire nations). "Therapists of all persuasions agree that reducing anxiety or anger is the best way to alleviate suffering from psychophysiological disorders"12 and good reactions to stress facilitate long-term health13,14. Maintaining strong willpower, a fighting spirit, and a positive attitude towards your own body help against diseases, including cancer15, because our immune system and our body's maintenance are linked to our nervous system16, and can be affected by emotional factors. Many psychosomatic diseases and somatoform disorders can be avoided (and sometimes cured) through education17. The promotion of critical thinking and hysteria-awareness can prevent symptoms appearing in the first place, although there are many forms of biological disease that cannot be meaningfully effected without medical intervention18.
Some people learn to control certain bodily functions through meditation. Heart rate and oxygen consumption can be reduced dramatically. With practice, our brains adapt to the training as with any other activity - Neurologists have reported that "in people who meditate, the areas of the brain that control breathing are larger"19.
“Meditation has been defined as a clearing or emptying of the mind through a narrowly focused thought process; the special word or phrase (the mantra used in Transcendental Meditation is an example of this. [...] Meditation, originally practised in India and other Eastern countries, became popular in the West in the late 1960s, as part of the 'flower power' phenomenon [...]. Since then, meditation has been studied by psychologists [...] There are many reported cases of yogis who manage to control their autonomic functions quite voluntarily through meditation [...]. A famous example is Ramanand Yogi, a 46-year-old Hindu who, in 1970, through the practice of yoga ('union') [...] used just over one-half of the calculated minimum amount of oxygen needed to keep him alive (and during one hour, he was averaging just one-quarter).”
Our brain-waves are patterns that occur brain-wide, and are associated with different mental states (rapid beta-waves occur during normal and alert conscious states) whereas "alpha waves indicate a relaxed, meditative state". Slower still are delta-waves which occur during sleep. "Meditation slows and deepens the brain-wave pattern from beta to alpha or (in advanced stage) even to theta, which produces a mildly altered state of consciousness".3
Those who practice transcendental meditation over the long term can expect health benefits such as less heart disease and even, according to one study, less likelihood of developing cancer. As our psychological states impact our immune system, scientists have studied the effects of forms of meditation on long-term health. Dr Schneider, who heads the centre of natural medicine and prevention at the Maharishi University of Management, Iowa, USA, published results of one such long-term study:
“A new study shows that transcendental meditation, a relaxation technique developed by the Indian guru [Maharishi] and made famous when [The Beatles] dabbled with it in the late 60s, can reduce death rates by nearly a quarter. Robert Schneider, who led the research, said: "The study found that in older people with mild high blood pressure, those practising transcendental meditation had a 23% lower risk of death from all causes". The results appear in the American Journal of Cardiology. "Some practised transcendental meditation, while others tried different techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation. The transcendental meditation group had 30% fewer deaths from heart disease and 49% fewer from cancer. [...] Previous research has found that transcendental meditation can lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure."”
“Zamora's tolerance for pain was tested by Dr Joshua Prager of the UCLA School of Medicine. According to Prager, Zamora's ability to withstand pain was 'off the charts,' most likely due to meditation and self-hypnosis.”
More respectable and realistic studies of the wider population, who do not engage in lifelong commitments to frequent meditation, have found the results to be less positive. A medical analysis of 47 trials published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that there is only "moderate evidence" of improvements in anxiety, depression and pain, and "low evidence" of improvements for stress and quality of life1. Also, no meditation programmes were found to be better than behavioural interventions, medical treatment with drugs, or physical exercise1.
Meditation has formed a part of religious practice since prehistory. Trances, some forms of prayer7 and other repetitive activities are often variations on meditation, having similar effects on the brain. Although some religious claims about the supernatural powers of meditation are nonsense; claims made in Yoga are so daft that Kaiten Nukariya in "Zen - The Religion of the Samurai" (1913)20 goes out of his way to state that Zen Buddhists do not make "any such absurd claims"5. Claims of yogic levitation are rightly ridiculed by skeptics6, and it makes it no better when they say "it was just for a brief moment" for "just a few centimeters"6. A sense of flying may well be possible (as frequently happens during sleep), but making physical objects immune to gravity is not something that can be effected by mere willpower. Since the era of the New Age, meditation has been increasingly popular amongst new religious movements, where it is often linked with hypotism and other mental efforts21.
One of Buddhism's most recognizable features is the practice of extended meditation, and this is especially important for Zen Buddhism and is listed as the first of its three main elements by Kaiten Nukariya4. The particular method of sitting cross-legged was initially developed by Indian teachers4.
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Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
The Journal of the American Medical Association. Published by The American Medical Association, Chicago, USA. A scientific journal running since 1883.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation. An e-book.
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. 1993 edition. Published by The Free Press, NY, USA. A paperback book.
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. A paperback book. Book Review.
McConnel, James V.
(1986) Understanding Human Behavior. 5th edition. Originally published 1974. Current version published by CBS College Publishing, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, USA. A hardback book.
Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. Subtitled: "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz. An e-book.