I think Yahoo headline writers need to calm down, chill for a while. Gain some perspective. Visit a retreat or something. Reader and old friend Steve sent me a link to this Yahoo News story with the headline Meditation Won't Boost Health: Study. The problems with this headline were that (1) it wasn’t really a study and (2) it didn’t really say that. It was actually a review and meta-analysis of 813 other studies and the conclusion was that the quality of these studies was too poor for them to form a judgment either way.
A meta analysis is a way of combining the results of many (often small) studies and drawing conclusions based on a statistical analysis of the larger data pool. Small differences in the larger data pool of the meta analysis can be more significant than the same difference in the small data pool of the individual studies. However, as Steven Novella put it:
… a meta-analysis does nothing to address the quality of the studies being looked at. The old adage of “garbage in-garbage out” still applies. If you lump together 10 bad studies, you don’t get one good study, you get a useless meta-analysis.
And to be fair, the researchers seem to know this. From the Abstract to the report - Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research (472 page .pdf) with my bold:
Evidence on the state of research in meditation practices was provided in 813 predominantly poor-quality studies. The three most studied conditions were hypertension, other cardiovascular diseases, and substance abuse. Sixty-five intervention studies examined the therapeutic effect of meditation practices for these conditions. Meta-analyses based on low-quality studies and small numbers of hypertensive participants showed that TM®, Qi Gong and Zen Buddhist meditation significantly reduced blood pressure. Yoga helped reduce stress. Yoga was no better than Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction at reducing anxiety in patients with cardiovascular diseases. No results from substance abuse studies could be combined. The role of effect modifiers in meditation practices has been neglected in the scientific literature. The physiological and neuropsychological effects of meditation practices have been evaluated in 312 poor-quality studies. Meta-analyses of results from 55 studies indicated that some meditation practices produced significant changes in healthy participants.
Conclusion: Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results.
Poor quality studies on an alternative medicine practice? Yes, hard to believe, I know. Whatever next? So the obvious question would be: “why did they bother?” Still, the researchers didn’t conclude meditation is no good, just that there really isn’t the data to support the claims for it. From the University of Alberta’s web page on the report:
But the researchers caution against dismissing the therapeutic value of meditation outright. "This report's conclusions shouldn't be taken as a sign that meditation doesn't work," Bond says. "Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. For medical practitioners who are seeking to make evidence-based decisions regarding the therapeutic value of meditation, the report shows that the evidence is inconclusive regarding its effectiveness." For the general public, adds Ospina, "this research highlights that choosing to practice a particular meditation technique continues to rely solely on individual experiences and personal preferences, until more conclusive scientific evidence is produced."
I personally don’t have a problem with the idea that meditation could help some people, especially those with stress related health problems. If you’re having trouble relaxing and this is raising your blood pressure, putting you at risk for a heart attack, say, it might help. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s a proven method.
It's done wonders for me.