Meditation is tightly associated with religious practices, but beside that it may be practiced for many other reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.

What are scientifically proven physiological and psychological effects of meditation?

  • 4
    Two non-religious related practices: Autogenic training and sophrology. This doesn’t make it scientific but it removes the spiritual component. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 16 '11 at 16:49
  • cbc.ca/news/background/meditation – ChrisW May 18 '11 at 13:41
  • While, of course their results can't be scientifically proven, the guys over at Dharma Overground have created a "map" of "attainments" they claim to be reachable through repeated meditation practice. If you read through some of the reports, you can see that some of these people are very serious, dedicated and smart practitioners, and not so easily dismissed. Of course, it's woo-woo territory but not everything that can't be scientifically proven has no merit or value. – TrojanName May 31 '13 at 16:14
  • "Meditation is tightly associated with religious practices". No, totally not, it's exactly the opposite. That sentence is so wrong, it hurts the eyes reading it. – motoDrizzt Jan 29 at 17:58
up vote 14 down vote accepted

As Christian pointed out, meditation means a lot of different things. Even varieties of meditation differ within themselves; according to one account, mindfulness meditation practices differ along 5 dimensions:

(1) intention and context of mindfulness practice, (2) bare attention, (3) attentional control, (4) wholesome emotions, and (5) ethical discernment

This leads to different effects depending on the style of meditation. Nonetheless, here are some of the findings:

Psychological effects

Meditation has been shown to be effective in self-regulation of many psychology factors including

present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbance, and psychological symptomatology, including anxiety and depression.

Transcendental Meditation has been shown to be particularly effective in improving anxiety, though other forms of meditation also helped, to a lesser degree.

Another review concluded that:

Mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions appear to be effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety, psychosis, borderline personality disorder and suicidal/self-harm behaviour.

Also, ACT therapy, a relatively new form of cognitive-behavioural therapy based on mindfulness, has been shown to be effective in the treatment of a number of issues, including psychosis, anxiety, depression, pain management, quitting smoking, and substance abuse. A re-analysis showed that ACT was even more effective than some existing treatments.

In contrast, another meta-analysis concluded that the effect of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program on depression and anxiety is not reliable:

Evidence for a beneficial effect of MBSR on depression and anxiety was equivocal. When active control groups were used, MBSR did not show an effect on depression and anxiety. Adherence to the MBSR program was infrequently assessed. Where it was assessed, the relation between practising mindfulness and changes in depression and anxiety was equivocal.

Neurological effects

This massive review summarises the research on neuroimaging studies of meditation and discusses the findings as they relate to psychological and clinical effects. The studies done to date show a number of changes to different areas of the brain, including frontal and prefrontal areas, which is linked with improvements to attention and information processing speed and efficiency. They conclude that effects on brain and nervous system function are undeniable, but due to differences in practice and research the exact nature of those effects requires more study.

Physiological effects

This review summarises some of the physiological effects linked directly to meditation (as opposed to those caused by e.g., simply resting), including changes to heart rate, blood flow, and metabolic processes.

For autogenic training (which is closely related to meditation but doesn’t have a spiritual component) there exist numerous studies. Citing from Wikipedia:

In 2002, a meta-analysis of 60 studies was published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, finding significant positive effects of treatment when compared to normals over a number of diagnoses; finding these effects to be similar to best recommended rival therapies; and finding positive additional effects by patients, such as their perceived quality of life.

Admittedly, this sounds sufficiently unspecific. And, not having read the meta-analysis, I cannot comment on the quality of these studies.

  • 1
    "perceived quality of life" - hard to judge, but phrases like this trigger alarm of confirmation bias (When someone is engaged in something which should have an effect X he is likely to see the effect X has happening, even when if fact it is not). – Suma Mar 17 '11 at 9:27
  • 1
    @Suma I totally agree (but to be fair, these are merely positive “additional” effects, not the main effects reported by the study so they may be discarded in the interpretation). – Konrad Rudolph Mar 17 '11 at 12:41

Meditation is a catch all phrase that encompass a wide array of practices. Different meditation practices will have slightly different effects.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis is a meta analyis on Mindfulness meditation with concluded:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a structured group program that employs mindfulness meditation to alleviate suffering associated with physical, psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders.

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.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .