I despise it. But it’s the new thing, and there’s a lot of promotion of this “mindfulness” nonsense. Yeah, it makes you feel better, which is a good thing, but so does prayer, and acupuncture, and petting a puppy, and taking long walks on the beach. That something might have subjective effects is useful — we all do things that are enjoyable, and we should — but that’s different from claiming it causes material improvements in your physical state.
I was told I had to read this study, Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter In 8 Weeks, but just reading the title fucked up my brain so much I’m going to have to go into a mindfulness retreat for a couple of months to repair it, except that those don’t work. I had a nasty reaction to practically every word in the title.
“Harvard”…nothing wrong with the university, except that it has become a magic word to the lay public, and is routinely invoked as short-cut to authority.
“MRI Study”…uh-oh. The new phrenology.
“Proving”…you do know that word doesn’t belong in any scientific paper, right?
“Meditation”…there seems to be a few hundred brands of this mystical practice out there. Which one? It’s a vague practice presented vaguely.
“Literally Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter”…christ, what bullshit. Nothing rebuilds your gray matter, literally or otherwise. You have a mostly stable population of neurons in the cortical gray that can modify their connectivity in subtle ways, but “literally rebuild”? No. That makes no sense at all.
I’ve tried to find out exactly what they did see (the original authors, for instance, do not claim that it “proves” anything, nor do they make this “rebuilding” claim). It’s not easy.
The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. McGreevey adds: “Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”
So they took 16 meditators and 17 controls and put them in the magic MRI machine, and got great big messy sets of measurements of the whole brain, and then analyzed the heck out of the data to find some things changed. I’ve participated in some brain imaging studies (in animals, not people), and one thing I can tell you for sure is that complex imaging data has a lot of wobble to it, and the only way you can extract sense from it is to focus, focus, focus on one feature and standardize every single parameter you can. These data are so highly derived and dependent on a variety of conditions in the subject and the apparatus that it’s incredibly easy to get all kinds of artifacts. I see a study with small n’s and vague objectives and extravagant outcomes that have not been confirmed (the study was from 2011), and I say…noise.
Did you know that it’s far easier to get your noise published if you come from Harvard?
They don’t even have a mechanism to explain how you could get significant changes in the quantity of gray matter — it’s in the pretty, highly processed MRI images, so it must be true. I tried finding a review to summarize the state of this kind of research, and here’s a positive 2015 review by Tang, Hölzel, and Posner, who are involved in these MRI studies. The best I can say is that this is an honest review that tries to make a good case, but still has to admit to deep flaws in the field (emphasis in this quote is mine).
Interest in the psychological and neuroscientific investigation of mindfulness meditation has increased markedly over the past two decades. As is relatively common in a new field of research, studies suffer from low methodological quality and present with speculative post-hoc interpretations. Knowledge of the mechanisms that underlie the effects of meditation is therefore still in its infancy. However, there is emerging evidence that mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness. Further research needs to use longitudinal, randomized and actively controlled research designs and larger sample sizes to advance the understanding of the mechanisms of mindfulness meditation in regard to the interactions of complex brain networks, and needs to connect neuroscientific findings with behavioural data. If supported by rigorous research studies, the practice of mindfulness meditation might be promising for the treatment of clinical disorders and might facilitate the cultivation of a healthy mind and increased well-being.
May a thousand weasel words bloom. The current crop of studies are piss-poor and lack an underlying mechanism, and tends to exaggerate their results, but meditation might change the structure of the brain, and we need more research. Maybe. We just don’t have good reason to think so, yet.
I do like that last sentence. It could be used by every quack in the world.
IF supported by rigorous research studies, X MIGHT be promising for treatment of clinical disorders. Substitute any X you might like — homeopathy, magic herbs, trepanning, brain removal therapy — and it’s still a totally true statement!
If you’re doing mindfulness meditation, this doesn’t mean you need to stop. It probably does have subjective value in helping you feel better, if you really enjoy it. When I was a child, I remember hanging out with my great-grandfather and grandfather when they would get together regularly to play cribbage. They were focused and concentrating and thinking, and while it was a mysterious and arcane game to me, they clearly derived a benefit, and were able to relax and find quiet pleasure from, the simple exercise of their brains. Perhaps I need to start an atheist cribbage-playing cult, do a few MRIs, and make grand claims for the neuroscientific power of a weekly game.
Or maybe everyone should just back off and recognize that human beings can be happy when they have the leisure to think quietly, without also demanding that it do powerful things to their cerebral cortex.
Here’s another critical response to meditation claims:
Not surprisingly, she said, attempts to measure meditation’s neurological effects with brain-wave monitors, positron emission tomography, and other techniques have yielded widely divergent findings. Meditation has been “prodded and poked by a variety of technological apparati, with inconclusive results,” Andresen commented. For every report of increased activity in the frontal cortex or decreased activity in the amygdala, there is a conflicting finding.
Investigations of meditation’s therapeutic benefits have been equally inconclusive. Meditation has been linked to a dizzying array of benefits, including the alleviation of stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, substance abuse, hostility, pain, depression, asthma, premenstrual syndrome, infertility, insomnia, substance abuse and the side effects of chemotherapy. But many of these studies have been poorly designed, Andresen remarked, carried out with inadequate controls or no controls at all.
Andresen noted that meditation has been linked to adverse side effects, too, including suggestibility, neuroticism, depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, psychosis and dysphoria. In an implicit reference to the cultish context within which meditation is often taught, Andresen added that meditators may become vulnerable to “manipulation and control by others,” including “unscrupulous or delusional teachers.”