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Does mindfulness meditation work? (Hint: First, define “work”)

meditationscienceHow con­vinc­ing is the sci­ence dri­ving the pop­u­lar­i­ty of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion? Brown Uni­ver­si­ty researcher has some sur­pris­ing answers (tri­cy­cle):

Giv­en the wide­spread belief that med­i­ta­tion prac­tice is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly cer­ti­fied to be good for just about every­thing, the results of a recent major analy­sis of the research might come as some sur­prise…

(Ques­tion) As a sci­en­tist and as a Bud­dhist, what do you make of the AHRQ report? (Answer) The report sounds pret­ty fair. This review—and pret­ty much every one before it—has found that med­i­ta­tion isn’t any bet­ter than any oth­er kind of ther­a­py.

The impor­tant thing to under­stand about the report is that they were look­ing for active con­trol groups, and they found that only 47 out of over 18,000 stud­ies had them, which is pret­ty telling: it sug­gests that there are few­er than 50 high-qual­i­ty stud­ies on med­i­ta­tion.

(Ques­tion) Is the data bet­ter for some appli­ca­tions of med­i­ta­tion than oth­ers? (Answer) I have done very care­ful reviews of the effi­ca­cy of med­i­ta­tion in two areas in which there are high lev­els of pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tion about how much data we have: sleep and edu­ca­tion. The data for sleep, for exam­ple, is real­ly not that strong. And the AHRQ arti­cle con­curs: it judges the lev­el of evi­dence for meditation’s abil­i­ty to improve sleep as “insuf­fi­cient.”

What I found from my study was that med­i­ta­tion made people’s brains more awake. From a very basic brain point of view, what hap­pens in your brain when you fall asleep? The frontal cor­tex deac­ti­vates. Nobody agrees what med­i­ta­tion does to the brain, but across the board, one of the most com­mon find­ings is that med­i­ta­tion increas­es blood flow and activ­i­ty in the pre­frontal cor­tex. So how is that going to improve sleep? It doesn’t make any sense. It is com­plete­ly incom­pat­i­ble with sleep­ing if you are doing it right…This is a very inter­est­ing exam­ple of the con­fu­sion that aris­es in the con­flu­ence between mod­ern sec­u­lar and tra­di­tion­al Bud­dhist con­texts. In the bud­dhad­har­ma, med­i­ta­tion is nev­er used to pro­mote sleep. It is for wak­ing up.

(Ques­tion) What would you say is the way for­ward for sci­en­tif­ic research on med­i­ta­tion? What would you like to see hap­pen? (Answer) … There needs to be more dia­logue and col­lab­o­ra­tion between Bud­dhists and dhar­ma teach­ers and the med­ical community—clinicians, peo­ple with train­ing in all psy­chi­atric prob­lems, but par­tic­u­lar­ly in trau­ma, which is some­thing not real­ly addressed in tra­di­tion­al Bud­dhist frame­works. One of the sta­tis­tics that blows my mind is that the main deliv­ery sys­tem for Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion in the mod­ern West isn’t Bud­dhism; it is sci­ence, med­i­cine, and schools. There is a tidal wave behind this move­ment. MBSR prac­ti­tion­ers already account for the major­i­ty of new med­i­ta­tors and soon they are going to be the vast major­i­ty. If Bud­dhists want to have any say, they bet­ter stop crit­i­ciz­ing and start col­lab­o­rat­ing, work­ing with instead of just against. Oth­er­wise, they might get left in the dust of the “McMind­ful­ness” move­ment.”

–> Keep read­ing the great, in-depth inter­view Here.

Study: Med­i­ta­tion Pro­grams for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Stress and Well-being: A Sys­tem­at­ic Review and Meta-analy­sis (JAMA Inter­nal Med­i­cine)

  • Impor­tance: Many peo­ple med­i­tate to reduce psy­cho­log­i­cal stress and stress-relat­ed health prob­lems. To coun­sel peo­ple appro­pri­ate­ly, clin­i­cians need to know what the evi­dence says about the health ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion.
  • Objec­tive: To deter­mine the effi­ca­cy of med­i­ta­tion pro­grams in improv­ing stress-relat­ed out­comes (anx­i­ety, depres­sion, stress/distress, pos­i­tive mood, men­tal health–related qual­i­ty of life, atten­tion, sub­stance use, eat­ing habits, sleep, pain, and weight) in diverse adult clin­i­cal pop­u­la­tions.
  • Find­ings: After review­ing 18 753 cita­tions, we includ­ed 47 tri­als with 3515 par­tic­i­pants. Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion pro­grams had mod­er­ate evi­dence of improved anx­i­ety, depres­sion, and pain, and low evi­dence of improved stress/distress and men­tal health–related qual­i­ty of life. We found low evi­dence of no effect or insuf­fi­cient evi­dence of any effect of med­i­ta­tion pro­grams on pos­i­tive mood, atten­tion, sub­stance use, eat­ing habits, sleep, and weight. We found no evi­dence that med­i­ta­tion pro­grams were bet­ter than any active treat­ment (ie, drugs, exer­cise, and oth­er behav­ioral ther­a­pies).
  • Con­clu­sions and Rel­e­vance: Clin­i­cians should be aware that med­i­ta­tion pro­grams can result in small to mod­er­ate reduc­tions of mul­ti­ple neg­a­tive dimen­sions of psy­cho­log­i­cal stress. Thus, clin­i­cians should be pre­pared to talk with their patients about the role that a med­i­ta­tion pro­gram could have in address­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal stress. Stronger study designs are need­ed to deter­mine the effects of med­i­ta­tion pro­grams in improv­ing the pos­i­tive dimen­sions of men­tal health and stress-relat­ed behav­ior.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

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