Has meditation been overrated?
Many of the benefits attributed to this practice have little scientific support.
Those who exercise meditation are convinced that with this they improve their health and well-being. A growing number of studies indicate this. However, the design of many of the investigations leaves much to be desired. To elucidate the issue, a team at Johns Hopkins University has recently reviewed every single detail of clinical trials already published. Result? While meditation seems to provide modest relief in states of anxiety, depression and pain, more quality work is required to judge its effect on certain disorders.
Madhav Goyal, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, and his colleagues selected a total of 47 clinical trials published throughout 2012 that evaluated the effects of meditation on diagnosed disorders. Another requirement was that the studies analyzed had probands distributed randomly in two groups: one for meditation and one for control (people who had followed another type of intervention for a time similar to that of the comparison group). They also examined whether the researchers in each trial knew what kind of intervention had been administered to the volunteers – ideally they did not know it, since that data could influence the evaluation. Only 3 percent of the studies met such strict criteria.
According to the results that were published in January of this year in JAMA Internal Medicine , there are indications, not very conclusive, that the meditation of full consciousness relieves pain, anxiety and depression; in these last two cases, similar to a therapy with antidepressants.
The meditation of full consciousness, one of the most researched techniques, consists of focusing attention on the here and now. The scientists did not have enough data to evaluate other benefits of this technique or the effects of other forms of meditation (practices based on mantras, among others).
Goyal argues that the shortage of results reflects the lack of knowledge to draw definitive conclusions. This is due, among other reasons, to the fact that it is not easy to obtain funds for quality research on meditation. “That is, in part, the reason that the trials we are reviewing are based on small samples and that many of them are of poor quality,” says Goyal. In addition, meditation can provide a range of benefits beyond the treatment of certain disorders, so they are difficult to quantify.
Alan Goroll, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, is confident that the results will serve as a stimulus to approach these issues scientifically.