“The thing about the absolute truth is, it’s not pretty, and not everyone is interested in it. But it’s still the truth.” – Mike Skinner
On Saturday I finished up a streak of 100 days of mindfulness meditation. Thank you, I’m impressed too. It’s rare I do anything for 100 days straight, except maybe eat. But even that I forget about some days. As it is, my history with meditation has been long and full of failure.
I bought my first book on meditation when I was 18 and attempted to get into the habit for the next 16 years. It never lasted more than about a month.
After reading 10% Happier and listening to Waking Up I decided to challenge myself to meditate for 100 days for an average of 10 minutes per day. I started with just 5 minutes per day to make it easier.
I wanted to do it consistently to the best of my abilities, but I had no expectations. Although I guess I probably did hope it would help with all the general things it has been reported to help with or I’d not have bothered. I mean 1,000 minutes is nearly 17 hours. That’s 2 seasons of Cheers!
The (Incomplete, Flawed) Research On The Benefits of Meditation
There is a lot of research regarding the supposed benefits of meditation, but if you learn even just the basics of how to read a scientific paper you quickly learn which research to pay attention to (not a whole lot really) and which research needs more research (most of it).
I’m not going to dissect every research paper on meditation because I have important things to do like catch up on all that Cheers I missed out on, but let’s dissect just one, for education’s sake.
I’ve often heard that regular meditation creates actual physical changes in the brain’s gray matter, making it more dense. That would be incredible! (Although I’m already pretty dense as it is so maybe I shouldn’t get so excited.)
But let’s hold on a second and take a look at the study in question.
According to the abstract — red flag! most bloggers and journalists only read and report on abstracts and that’s no good — what they did was take 16 healthy individuals who wanted to take an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. They measured these individuals before and after the program using voxel-based morphometry. (I don’t know what that is either, but that’s actually not important in determining if the study is done well.) They also measured a control group of 17 individuals.
Hopefully you see another red flag.
A total sample size of 33 individuals is, for statistical intents and purposes, nothing. You’ll be happy to know the researchers were up front about this if you read the full paper instead of just the abstract. See, most scientists mostly have an interest in truth. Journalists and bloggers (and podcasters and authors and TV presenters) have an interest in increasing their audiences and bank accounts, even if it means lying. Intentional or not. Ignorance is not a good excuse.
Beyond sample size, if you read the paper you also learn that two people dropped out of the study after one week.
“Due to discomforts during the first MRI scanning session, two participants did not return for the second session.”
That’s not a big deal in this particular case, because they’re not trying to hide the drop out rate, but drop out rates can matter a lot. It’s an easy way for a researcher to massage the results and make them more positive, but that’s a whole other essay. (Google “p hacking” if you’re interested.)
Additionally, this group of subjects was self-selected. And they got a discount on the MBSR course to participate in the study. A group of subjects that is self-selected is usually not as good as a group of randomly selected individuals although for a study using MRI I don’t think it’s as big a problem. Somebody who understands and works with MRI would be better equipped to speak to this.
If this is confusing or convoluted you now see why if you care about your health it’s your duty to go beyond the headlines when you hear news that says anything to the effect of “Science confirms …” or “Science says …” or “backed by science!” It’s usually not an absolute even if it’s reported as such by your favorite A-list bloggers, journalists, or authors.
Happily, and I think you’ll find this often, in the Discussion section of the paper the researchers here are up front about the faults of their study:
“It should be noted also that MBSR is a multifaceted group program and some positive effects may result from components not specific to meditation or mindfulness, such as group social interaction, stress education, or gentle stretching exercises.”
“Also, the current study investigated physician- and self-referred individuals seeking stress reduction and generalizations should therefore be limited to this population of stress individuals. Future studies will be required to test whether findings extend to non-stressed individuals as well as individuals suffering from mental disorders. Finally, the current study employed a rather small sample size and replication is necessary.”
This is why I love science.
These researchers are so honest THEY DON’T EVEN TRUST THEIR OWN STUDY!
That doesn’t make for a good headline on Buzzfeed or HuffPo or [insert most bloggers who report on science] so it’s up to you to read the often confusing research papers before making a decision based on a well written or well marketed article.
You might be thinking, “OK, Karol, so maybe meditation increasing gray matter density is inconclusive, but I’ve heard it works for depression and other psychological issues. What about that?”
There is no doubt lots of research to this effect. One of the best ways to look at it is through a meta-analysis, which is an analysis of the analysis. In other words, researchers don’t take just one study, but they take all the studies that fit their criteria and come to a conclusion based on a bigger sample size.
Anything like this with regards to meditation? Glad you asked. Yes, yes there is: Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis
I do have the full paper, but it’s not necessary in this case because fortunately, the abstract is telling (emphasis mine): “Although derived from a relatively small number of studies, these results suggest that MBSR may help a broad range of individuals to cope with their clinical and nonclinical problems.”
Although not ideal you can sometimes use an abstract to dismiss a paper. You can almost never use the same abstract to determine if the paper should be accepted as fact.
Relatively small? Suggest? May help? Pardon me if I say that’s not convincing. It’s like the first time Sam tells Diane, “I love you,” because Diane bought him tickets to the big fight. You think maybe it is true and it does seem true, but even Sam’s not convinced. But hey, now we’re going a little off the rails, aren’t we?
“It’s good to stay true to your own vision. Even, or maybe especially, when that vision is that you know your life is going substantially off the rails, and you’re determined to try to present that situation in an honest way.” – Mike Skinner
That quote has absolutely nothing to do with meditation, Cheers, or scientific research, but it sure does have the phrase “off the rails” in it and that’s good enough for me.
Have I lost you yet? No? Ehh, win some lose some.
So … what happened after my own stint of 100 days and 1,000 minutes of meditation?
Well, before we get to that, lately:
- I haven’t been sleeping well. As a result I’m tired most days and …
- I’m more stressed than before. As a result I’m frazzled and …
- I’m less focused than before. As a result …
- I haven’t been getting any good work or reading done. (Didn’t finish a single book in June, which is not normal.) As a result …
- I’m less happy than before. As a result …
- I sleep worse than before, I’m more stressed than before, I’m less focused than before, and I’m less happy than before. And so on.
Now, insomnia is nothing new for me and I’m not blaming meditation for any of this. It very well could be due to life changes. I got married — my wife actually joined me in meditation for most of my last 50 days — and our future is held up in annoying bureaucracy. That hasn’t been easy for me to deal with because although I’m okay dealing with change I’m not good at dealing with being forced into things. Top that off with all of the uncertainty (6 more months until we can move? 12 months? Longer? I don’t care how long it takes anymore, but I’d like to know.) and I’m enjoying Poland less as I feel more trapped here.
Again, I am not blaming meditation for these issues.
But meditation has not helped. I don’t feel less stressed after a meditation session. I don’t feel more calm after a meditation session. I don’t feel more focused after a meditation session. I don’t feel much of anything after a meditation session except, “Oh, cool, well, I meditated.” So what’s the point? If it’s not making my life better then it’s making my life worse if for no other reason than by wasting my time.
Yesterday, the first full day after my meditation streak ended, was one of my most relaxed feeling days in weeks. I actually think I may have been starting to get a sort of meditation anxiety and it was a relief to know I wouldn’t be meditating at any point in the day.
Before you think I’m being unreasonable, much like the research dissected above cannot be taken as a definitive positive statement on the benefits of meditation, you also cannot take my anecdotes as a blanket statement that meditation is useless. It has been useless for me. Sample size of Karol Gajda.
If it comes out that there is definitive research that meditation is beneficial even when it doesn’t seem like it then I will consider doing it again. Until that time, well, after 16 years of fits and starts I can finally say I gave it a good shot and it’s time to move on to not giving meditation much thought. (Is that a pun? I can’t tell. My sleep deprived brain is broken.) It also leaves more time for Cheers. I’m happier already.
If you are interested in meditation there are a few things I learned about it during my 1,000 minutes sitting in silence.
Contrary to what it might seem I didn’t hate meditating and I didn’t decide I was going to stop until last week when I looked more closely at the research. Even though I wasn’t getting anything out of meditating I was committed to keep doing it if the science was in its favor. Alas, that’s not the case.
If nothing else, it was interesting to learn …
- It’s incredibly difficult — nay, impossible — to shut off your thoughts.
- You will not be able to focus on your breath for more than a few seconds at a time.
- Some days your time spent in silence will go by quickly. This is enjoyable.
- Some days it will feel like you are at war with your thoughts and 10 minutes will seem like 30. This is exhausting.
- Don’t scratch the itch. Focus on it. It will go away. (I quite liked this.)
An aside: Think god gave you free will? Sit in silence and don’t let your thoughts wander for 10 minutes. If you can’t control your own thoughts, what else can’t you control?
If after some time meditation isn’t doing anything for you then quit. No regrets. Maybe you, like me, are one of the many people meditation doesn’t help and that 10-20 minutes per day could be better used reading a book or engaging in myriad other activities. (*ahem* Cheers)
I would like to end on a positive note, because that feels nice, you know? So, on the positive side I’d always planned on doing a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat at some point and this experience has saved 10 whole days of my life from that torture. Huzzah!
Do you meditate? What has been your experience?
Update: Lots of great comments (here and on Reddit) and e-mails about meditation and science journalism over the past 24 hours. I’ve run into some doxastic openness and, unfortunately, some intense doxastic closure as well. But that was to be expected. In general, I’ve been feeling great since stopping the meditation. But I’m also more open to trying it again at some point in the future. Longer sessions, but without the “must do it daily” requirement. And maybe with a teacher in the beginning. For now? I’ll stick to other activities.
Thanks the account of your empirical test.
And thanks for the the reminder about A-list bloggers and other click bait mongers.
What seems clear, is that the jury is still out, as far as science is concerned.
Maybe the effects of meditation, of sort you tested, are involved in some kind of interaction with something else – something that can either turn on or switch off any measurable effect of meditation alone. What comes to my mind (another pun?) are caffeine consumption and physical exercise, and other factors that can affect cortisol levels, et cetera. The scientists themselves mentioned gentle stretching exercises.
I’m not advocating meditation. Or discouraging it. I’m just saying there could be a number of healthy lifestyle practices that may need to be in place before meditation shows any effect, because of interaction effects.
“I’m just saying there could be a number of healthy lifestyle practices that may need to be in place before meditation shows any effect …”
I’ve thought about this too. And it makes me wonder, “if I have to do X for meditation to work can I just do X and skip the meditation?”
The jury has deliberated and meditation is a powerful process to get your mind. body, and soul centered again. I’m not an A-List blogger, but I am an avid mediator. Most of us have been programmed from birth to think being a consumer is what life is about. The more your look outside of yourself for answers to anything the more you will be disconnected to most of what you are. Science has little to do with anything, and it actually dis-empowers you to think outside of yourself, and believe wholeheartedly in the Church of Science. You are a spiritual being having a temporary physical experience and you are powerful far beyond anything you have been taught.
“Science has little to do with anything.”
How sure are you of this? Again, use the same 0 to 100 scale from my previous comment.
“Science has little to do with anything.”……”How sure are you of this?”
Let’s start with this one…
I am about 1000% sure. Now, you may ask how is it possible?
Because, to come to a definitive conclusion on anything in this time and space you must have all of the possibilities at your disposal.
If you don’t, it is impossible to know anything completely, that’s why science calls what they think is possible “A Theory”.
Does science have access to every single possibility in the universe?
The definitive answer is “No”. So at best, it is a best guess.
Science as it is currently practiced has hit a wall. The old archaic model only believes in a material world.
Quantum physics clearly shows that we are the creators of our own reality and that there is an intangible world far greater than the material world.
I will stop there on this because I could go on and on.
So you believe a scientific theory is the same as the layman’s use of the term theory?
I believe science comes up with its best case scenario, at its current level of consciousness and knowing, at that specific time and space, for whatever theory they claim.
However, change is a constant, and just like Milk has an expiration date, so does scientific theory.
So, do you believe that, out of the infinite possibilities that exist, that science has access to all these possibilities?
I’ll be happy to answer all your questions (heck, I’ll even do a separate blog post answering them if it comes to that), but I’m not understanding your belief or disbelief or whatever it may be in scientific theory.
You’re still using the layman’s definition of the word theory in place of scientific theory and I’m trying to figure out why that is.
Is a scientific theory something some random scientist makes up and claims to be true, hoping we all believe it? Is there a difference between a scientific hypothesis and a scientific theory?
You have to do it longer than 100 days. You have a lot of societal conditioning, about how this life should be, that just doesn’t go away in 100 days. Heck, in most cases EVERYTHING we have been taught is the EXACT opposite of how human beings work. You don’t need Science to know intuitively know this. You know this by how disconnected we have become from nature, due to stress, fear, and congestion. These three things over time are a formula for disaster for the human organism. Meditation is a way to bring yourself back into alignment with who you truly are, raise your vibration and move your frequency on the dial of life. Don’t give up! You should be able to easily do 2 x 15 minute session a day everyday.
Hi MR, I was going to include a clause in my essay to the effect of, “Don’t tell me I did it wrong. Don’t tell me I need to do even more.” But I thought better of it. I guess I shouldn’t have.
There is a lot to unpack with what you wrote. I don’t know best where to start so how about the beginning.
“You have a lot of societal conditioning, about how this life should be, that just doesn’t go away in 100 days.”
On a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being not at all and 100 being I’m 100% positive) how sure are you of this about me?
Look, Karol I know you think you live like a wild west cowboy, I get this from your articles, do I know know you, no. If you are going to write a essay on your experience of meditation and telling us how it went, you should be open to hearing the opposite. Acceptance of my comment and surrender is what you should meditate on next. Just sayi’n:)
I’ll ignore the incredibly condescending nature of your comment and the fact that you’re making ridiculous claims with no proof and chalking it up to, “well, that’s just my opinion, man.”
I’ll ignore that because you haven’t answered the simple questions from previous comments.
As, I will ignore you commanding me to rate things from 0 to 100.
Now, are you sure I’m making ridiculous claims? Or in your world of being controlling, is it okay, for people to have different opinions other than your own?
I see by reading the other comments that most of them are agreeable to your worldview. That is obviously how you would like all comments posted on this comment section to go. If they don’t, it looks like you attempt to bring the conversation back into your control and personal worldview, by asking controlling condescending questions.
“you’re making ridiculous claims with no proof and chalking it up to, “well, that’s just my opinion, man.”
Just like you have an opinion on meditation, I have an opinion that there is no definitive way to have proof on anything, in this universe, at this time, due to the inability to know all possibilities that exist for any one, person, or thing.
Karol,Do you have some magical power that we don’t know of, that allows you to know all of the possibilities that exist?
If not, your claims could be seen as ridiculous, with no proof, and chalking it up to your own personal opinion, just like a scientific theory( best guess).
I do know that you have feigned a couple of weak attempts to control the conversation. Which, leads me to believe that you are controlling.
These are some things you should think about Karol. If not by meditation, then by some other activity that fits your personal worldview.
“If not, your claims could be seen as ridiculous, with no proof, and chalking it up to your own personal opinion, just like a scientific theory( best guess).”
Do you believe a scientific theory is similar to the layman’s use of the term theory? In your belief is a scientific theory untested and unproven?
Asking questions is not about being controlling. It’s about not ignoring issues and discussing them one at a time to better understand where you are coming from and how you came to your beliefs.
Edit: The reason for that is to determine if maybe I’m completely wrong about my own beliefs. I’d love to know that!
Karol, I know the difference between the two, if that’s what you’re asking?
But, scientific theory, theory, or a pink unicorn that writes College courses, doesn’t really matter what you want to call it. Why? Because, if you do not have access to all the infinite possibilities in the universe(which know ones at this time), then you cannot formulate or claim to have a definitive answer.
It is all an temporary illusion that scientists are pushing in their scientific community, which is more worried about how they look or are perceived amongst their peers, than they are finding out what is true, or thinking out of peer reviewed box, for fear of looking like a Quack. Needless to say, this stifles progress. So it is all still just a best guess.:)
“On a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being not at all and 100 being I’m 100% positive) how sure are you of this about me?”
When you ask questions like this, that is being controlling. I understand if you are asking questions about how I came about my opinions, but this question isn’t about that. And I think you know the difference.
See, this is the issue. You say you know the difference, but then you make claims and use the terms in a way that shows otherwise. I’d love to understand that, but I think we’re at an impasse.
You also have missed a point about how different mental practices have different physical effects on the brain, so whatever you may decide is correct about one practice (such as mindfulness) may not be correct about another.
As well, the physical effects of different mental practices may actually change over time, so what is valid for a short-term practitioner, may not be valid for the long-term (and visa versa).
Your point about the quality of meditation research and the limited number of subjects used is certainly valid, but that is the nature of the beast:
there’s no pharmaceutical companies sponsoring research on medicine that will make them potentially billions of dollars.
In the case of mindfulness research, there are a few Buddhists (and Buddhist-leaning practitioners) doing research because they believe in it or because their friends who DO believe in it have managed to cajule them to join them in doing a study.
In the case of Transcendental Meditation (the non-mindfulness practice that I’ve been doing for 42 years), there are a few TMers doing research because they believe in it, etc.
TMers have been doing research on TM since 1970 and the number of studies published per year has been relatively steady for about the past 45 years. Research on mindfulness started more recently, and the number of studies published per year has been growing exponentially for the past 10 years (though is probably leveling off now).
There are few longitudinal studies on either practice, but if you look at what little exists, you’ll notice that TM’s effects are consistent in both the short-term and long-term, both during AND outside of meditation. TM is a simple resting technique, and all the effects during and outside of meditation are due to this simple, non-changing aspect
The effects of mindfulness, on the other hand, tend to change with time. Mindfulness trains attention, and the effects in the short-term are not necessarily found in the long-term.
For example, the American Heart Association reviewed all research published on all forms of meditation from 2007 to 2012 and decided that only TM had sufficiently good quality and consistent research available to say that doctors may recommend TM to their patients in clinical practice for the treatment of high blood pressure. Mindfulness and other non-TM practices failed to make the grade.
http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf+html (see page 6).
on the other hand, the following is the only long-term study on mindfulness that I am aware of. Notice sentence buried towards end of abstract:
“Parallel to the reduction of stress levels after 1 year, the intervention-group additionally showed reduced catecholamine levels (p < 0.05), improved 24 h-mean arterial (p < 0.05) and maximum systolic blood pressure (p < 0.01), as well as a reduction in IMT (p < 0.01). However, these effects were lost after 2 and 3 years of follow-up.”
Research on TM is subject to the same issues that you have noted about mindfulness. However, there’s enough concern about PTSD that research funding is available in a relatively big way, from the military.
These two studies were sponsored by the David Lynch Foundation
and were so overwhelmingly good that various international organizations (e.g. the United Nations) have started conducting their own independent research to see if TM really does work on PTSD as well as those studies suggest.
Likewise, stress in some public schools often approaches that found in war refugees and governments in South America are doing their own research to see if this NBC news report applies to schools in their own countries:
The eventual outcome, should such results be independently confirmed, would be for existing employees of various governments and international agencies to be trained as TM teachers and teach TM as part of their day jobs to refugees, disaster victims, school students, prison inmates, etc.
And so, based on their insider knowledge of the findings of these independent studies, the David Lynch Foundation is projecting that over the next 10-20 years, about 100 million people will learn TM for free, taught by existing employees of various governments and international agencies trained as TM teachers…
Of course, that assumes that such independent research supports the outcomes described above, and that other meditation practices do NOT lead to similar outcomes, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
Hi Karol! Interesting post! Tammy had a similar experience with meditation. Whenever she was able to be silent and calm she then just fell asleep. Tammy discovered that for her, moderate exercise (swimming and walking currently) is what gives her many of the benefits that mediation promises including a calm mind, lower anxiety, a boost in happiness, and better sleep. Of course, we are all different. For example, I’ve never felt the need to meditate, and exercise for the sake of exercise has never felt great. I have tried both and just felt bored. I will exercise for productive reasons like bike commuting, walking and talking with Tammy, or working on projects. I guess we all have to empirically find how to improve our quality of life (with a little help from neuroscience and physiology).
Also, I found a PDF of the full version of the research article you mentioned only getting an abstract for which I can email you. Perhaps I should write a blog post about how to find research articles behind pay-walls. ;^)
I hope you find peace in the uncertainty you are feeling. I always took comfort in the idea of “this too shall pass…”
Thanks for sharing your and Tammy’s experiences, Logan.
And thanks for sending along that study! Yes, an article about how to legally find research papers that are behind paywalls would be wonderful.
First off, l love this kind of critical thinking that I think is too often missing from our discourse. I find plenty of benefits from meditation when I feel the need to do it, which isn’t every day. I really took to heart your sense of relief when you felt as if you didn’t have to do it. I used to beat myself up when I didn’t meditate and now I do it when I feel the desire to. It works much better for me that way. I actually haven’t mediated in almost two months and I feel great. When the time comes that I want to meditate again, I’ll feel great about that too.
You make a great point on taking responsibility when it comes to scientific research (especially that which concerns your health). It’s so important to look beyond the headlines and get as much information as possible before taking any action whose benefits are inconclusive, or worse, might not be beneficial at all.
Thanks, Dan! I like the idea of having something useful in the arsenal (such as meditation) when other things (exercise, reading, music) aren’t working or I simply can’t do them for whatever reason. I may try your approach and use longer meditation sessions every once in a while as opposed to feeling like I have to do it every day.
Karol, I too, have tried meditation for years without much (if any) success. I’ve tried guided meditations which I find annoying and just want to guide to shut up. I’ve tried the sitting quietly and concentrating on breathing, my response, ok so what. I know people who swear by meditation, hey if it makes them feel better, more centered, in control whatever fine for them. I personally don’t believe there is anything that works for everyone, we’re all different. I find I’m more relaxed when I’ve been able to think something through, but others need to let thoughts go. I know people who talk about leaving their body and floating through space, ok, I’d like some of those drugs, but even though I’m open to the idea that people have out of body experiences I’m just not buying it from everyone who states that. So in the end, if someone feels it improves their life, great, I’m happy for you, but I think I’ll just go for a walk.
I don’t have much to add since your experience seems quite similar to mine. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one around these parts who hasn’t had a definite positive experience with meditation. So thank you for sharing, Shannon.
I really enjoyed reading the post and the scientific citations, and just wanted to leave a few of my own observations as I participated in a 10-day Vipassana retreat last month.
– I did 20 minutes for 30 days in a row a few years ago and came away with almost the exact same “it was interesting to learn” things as you. Other than that I’d been off and on for years. I felt like the retreat was a totally different beast.
– It took about 8 days (90 hours or so) to be certain of any kind of tangible difference. I would ask myself every day, “if you left today, would there be any real difference?”, and the answer was “no” until about that time.
– Having done the retreat, I feel like comparing doing ten minutes for one hundred days to the 10-day retreat sounds is kind of like comparing the effects of ten push-ups a day for 100 days to a ten day military bootcamp with 11.5 hours of training a day. Don’t take the analogy too seriously as it’s definitely not a perfect one, but at least in my own case (with the previously cited example), the results were totally different.
– As far as lasting results go, my skeptical wife who still doesn’t plan to go to the retreat tells me pretty often that I am a happier person. It’s hardly scientific but other than my own feelings, it’s the most reliable measure I have (and one that matters).
To sum up, I would encourage you to give the retreat a shot if you’re still willing to consider it because it was a very different experience for me. I’m happy to discuss further if you have more questions and will take no offense if you poke holes in my analogies or opinions.
P.S. There’s a great point about whether other lifestyle changes could have similar effects. I have no idea and I haven’t done any other 10-day intensive retreats that would be comparable. This doesn’t take away from the value I did get from my retreat, however.
Thanks for sharing, Lee.
“I feel like comparing doing ten minutes for one hundred days to the 10-day retreat sounds is kind of like comparing the effects of ten push-ups a day for 100 days to a ten day military bootcamp with 11.5 hours of training a day.”
This is a good analogy. Except that even 10 pushups per day for 100 days would show noticeable strength increases if starting from 0. I wasn’t planning on quitting meditation. I was planning on increasing to more than 10 minutes per day. But after 100 days of not-much I think I’m better off doing something else with that time.
In any case, I don’t think a 10 day retreat is in my future. I’d rather spend 10 days at a workshop learning to build something or 10 days traveling. At least I know I’ll get something out of those.
That said, after reading these comments and comments on Reddit, I haven’t given up on meditation entirely. At some point I may try to come back to it with longer sessions, but without the “I must do it every day” requirement.
Good stuff Karol! Take care.
This is exactly the challenge I’m facing with meditation as well. When I’m done through a meditation session, the only positive feeling I have is that “I’ve meditated.” Apart from that, I don’t feel any better than I did before meditating.
I would even say that with each session I’m becoming more indifferent and give less of a f*** about the whole thing. I just sit, try to focus on the breath, get distracted, and don’t even care to get my mind back on track. … an “oh, well, whatever” kind of feeling.
Thanks for sharing, Karol.
“I would even say that with each session I’m becoming more indifferent and give less of a f*** about the whole thing.”
I didn’t get this until about the last week of my 100 days, but I know this feeling well.
What type of meditation were you practicing? Was it guided or unguided?
I’ve hit about 50 days with a popular app and have similar struggles, but for me guided meditation has exercises helping deal with the struggles of meditation. There are also thought exercises to add throughout the day so mindfulness isn’t just happening during 10 minutes of meditation.
I also thought a 10-day intensive would improve my meditation, but that’s based on one comment made by Sam Harris.
Mindfulness meditation. I did both guided and unguided. Guided was much worse for me than unguided. I’d say I only did guided for about 30 of the 100 days, but I didn’t track that.
Your comment about the small sample size of the brain density study is well-founded, but not necessarily a valid criticism of a study.
A critical component in a study of this kind is the effect size, and a larger effect size can often be determined from a smaller sample, while conversely a small effect size needs a much larger sample to detect.
An exaggerated example: if I have a drug that I claim makes a person taller, and we gave it to just three adults (and kept three adults as controls), and those three adults each doubled their size in a week, we would not need a larger sample to be pretty certain the effect was real.
This interplay between effect size and sample size is exactly why we use statistics and p-values, which is the figure that helps decide whether the result we’re seeing is a fluke, *taking into account* the sample size. In the study linked, it looks like several of their p-values are 0.001 and 0.002, which means that there’s just a one-in-a-thousand chance that their results are flukes, *even given the small sample size*.
This could theoretically still be explained by self-selection, or by p-hacking (if they measured 1000 different parts of the brain, there’s a good chance that one will be changed by that much), but not by sample size.
Thanks for that addition and for explaining p-values a bit, Sam.
But the comparison between a pill that doubles someone’s size and a study such as this is not a fair comparison because is it ever that simple or obvious?
Even the researchers here readily admit the sample size is too small.
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to bring a drug to market if sample sizes didn’t matter? I’m admittedly a bit out of my realm here because I’ve obviously never worked on bringing a drug to market. But I’m interested in this line of discourse in general so thanks for that.
I very much liked the sentiment and general drive of this post, but I think you might have to follow your own advice on a couple topics:
1) You lament the use of abstracts by bloggers looking for content and not bothering to go deeper, and then almost immediately quote an abstract to a paper you couldn’t access/didn’t want pay for.
2) You have an absolutely, 100% solid, point about lower-than-necessary sample sizes or poorly formed experiments not giving valid results, but you spend a lot of lines below that very solid argument speaking about your experience, a sample size of one with no control. I’m not personally sold that TM works at all, but in the vein of your article, you can’t make your conclusion without a better test. (What if you would have been even more stressed without it? Without a way to control or sample, it sadly can’t be backed up either way.)
Thanks for pointing these out, Jay.
1) I know you’re trying to keep me on my toes — and I appreciate that! — but a research paper can be dismissed based on the abstract. I didn’t explain this well. Abstracts can have enough information to determine if the research should be dismissed. Although it’s still not ideal. Abstracts cannot (usually) be accepted as a “science confirms!” type of breakthrough used by journalists today based on the abstract.
Note: I did get the full research paper in question shortly after publishing this essay. And I’ve finally updated the essay to reflect that.
2) I explained this in this essay, although maybe not quite clearly. Although I did clearly state this was a sample size of me and I can definitely use that as valid because it’s rare that something works for everybody. For example, let’s say I had a headache or some other pain and I took ibuprofen. Nothing serious, but uncomfortable none-the-less. And let’s say the pain didn’t go away after taking the 200mg standard dose of OTC ibuprofen. I could either keep taking more ibuprofen or I could determine a regular dose does not work for me. Assuming it probably doesn’t work for everybody it’s fair to make a determination to that effect. Does that mean a larger dose wouldn’t work? No.
Now, it’s true I can only really make the claim that 10 minutes per day of meditation does nothing for me. I can’t state that 2 hours per day would do nothing. But I can use the fact that 10 minutes does nothing to decide I don’t need to go further and try 2 hours per day. That said, I’ve already added an addendum that I may try meditation in a different form in the future.
Small additional note: You mentioned TM, or transcendental meditation. I was referring to mindfulness meditation in this essay.