Meditation and negative side effects: the latest research

A 2020 review of mindfulness research highlights a reluctance to acknowledge potential adverse effects.

contrasting emotions
The effects of meditation based brain training are neither uniform nor universal

Scientists and clinicians, generally speaking, attempt to make the world a better place. Many of us working with mindfulness have confidence that this human technology has significant curative potential. But a health and wellbeing intervention cannot be built on my confidence or compassionate aspiration. It requires objective results produced through reliable scientific methods. Such results should offer a comprehensive understanding, including indications of problematic side effects. This summer, perhaps for the first time, a journal article has summarised adverse events linked to meditation practice (MAE).1

In a recent review of Richard Layard’s manifesto for happiness, I highlighted the tension between wanting mindfulness to be an effective panacea and making the scientific case for its widespread use. This dilemma is well known to psychologists. We direct our research towards a desired outcome, a plausible hypothesis, reliant on the scientific method to ensure our work remains objective and unbiased. Methodologically robust results of experiments and clinical trials should deliver a balanced and replicable set of data. If the data is not objective or if a later investigation cannot repeat the results, the scientific reliability may be open to question. Within the psychological sciences, these conflicting forces have long been a major source of concern.

Psychology has been locked into a so called replication crisis for several decades.2 Meditation research shares characteristics of this malaise, but scientists working in this field have highlighted several additional concerns. Meditation based mind training ultimately mediates brain function and structure; none of our higher (cortical) brain functions work in isolation. When activity in one area attenuates, we may see a correlated augmentation in an anatomically separate region. Put simply: brain training can simultaneously have different effects, these effects can vary from person to person. This truism of neuroscience should ensure that when meditation based health interventions are studied, both beneficial and adverse potentials are considered.

In August of this year, a research team (Farias, Maraldi, Wallenkampf and Lucchetti) published a strategic review of meditation studies in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. ‘Adverse events in meditation practices’ investigated almost half a century of meditation research, a total of 6,742 citations. Of those papers, only 83 met the project’s inclusion criteria. Across this sample, the study found MAEs in 8.3% of cases. That meditation practice has been scientifically correlated with problems in some practitioners is a significant finding in its own right. But a second issue, the tendency of meditation and mindfulness research to focus on positive outcomes to the exclusion of other considerations also an needs to be taken very seriously. When the science of meditation is explored from a historical perspective, this lack of objectivity has been a recurrent problem for a long time, at least fourty years. It’s root causes go back to early engagements between non-positivist knowledge systems and psychology.

The Farias et al. paper signposts a potential new trajectory for the science of meditation. It doesn’t, however, offer any explanation of why adverse side effects receives a low research priority. Given the codes of ethics and conduct underpinning experimental and clinical psychology, future research will need to take the question of MAEs more seriously. However, two overarching consideration require urgent attention. Firstly, on the theoretical and operational level what happened to spiritual meditation when it relocated to psychology? And why despite thousands of experiments over at least eighty years, is our scientific knowledge of meditation still described as ‘preliminary’?

Notes

1 Farias, M., Maraldi, E., Wallenkampf, K. C., & Lucchetti, G. (2020). Adverse events in meditation practices and meditation‐based therapies: a systematic review. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

2 Maxwell, S. E., Lau, M. Y., & Howard, G. S. (2015). Is psychology suffering from a replication crisis? What does “failure to replicate” really mean?. American Psychologist, 70(6), 487.