debunking myths about meditation

12 Myths Debunked About Meditation from New Neuroscience Research

In the online self help and entrepreneurship communities, meditation and mindfulness have started to be worshiped as magic pills for success with wealth, happiness, focus, health, and more.

One of the drivers of this idea are podcast interview shows, like The Tim Ferriss Show and Eventual Millionaire. These shows interview tons of successful people and claim most interviewees practice some form of meditation practice.

But is it true? Can it solve every problem under the sun, from anxiety to procrastination? Or it is confirmation and fallacy of correlation proving causation? Maybe only 5% of them actually meditate, but they over-inflated how frequently it showed up based on their estimates.

One of the most respected scientists of our time, Daniel Goleman, author of books like Emotional Intelligence, stepped up to find out the truth by writing a whole book proving and debunking meditation myths based on hard, empirical research. The book is called Altered Traits. Here’s what he found.

Enter False Gurus of Meditation

Decades ago, Daniel Goleman encountered one of his first experiences with a meditation trickster. A guru from India came to him with all sorts of grandiose claims. But when he hooked him up to machines for testing, everything he claimed was false. In fact, the opposite was true.

When he said he was making his blood pressure go down, it went up! When he said it’d go up, it went down.

When Daniel revealed these findings to the guru, he stormed off with protests. Daniel later found out that this guru was mentioning how he was “studied by Ivy-league scientists” as he sold his teachings. Clearly, science is needed to find out what truly works and what doesn’t. So is all of meditation a scam? Not exactly…

Does Meditation Actually Help With Reducing Stress?

Within a mere 30 hours of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practice, the amygdala (a key part of the brain’s stress circuitry) dampens in activity.

There are also hints in the research that show that the even baseline state, with drops as high as 50%.

Daily practice results in even less stress reactivity. Zen masters can withstand higher levels of pain and have less reaction to stress.

Long-term meditators also recover from stress faster. This speaks to the importance of continued practice.

It Does Actually Improve Attention

Part of improved ability stress reduction is due to improvements in attention from meditation.

It Does Actually Help With Emotional Control

A three-month meditation retreat brought increased emotional regulation. Long-term practice increased connectivity between the prefrontal areas that manage emotion and the amygdala area that reacts to stress (this means less reactivity).

Learning About Compassion Isn’t Enough

Learning about it doesn’t always lead to compassionate behavior. There’s a difference between empathizing with suffering and actually helping.

The Truth About Loving-Kindness Meditation

There are three forms of empathy:

  1. cognitive
  2. emotional
  3. empathic connection

Often, people emphatize emotionally with suffering then tune out to soothe their own uncomfortable feelings.

Compassion meditation enhances empathic concern, activates circuits for love and circuits that register the others’ suffering. It also prepares you to act when suffering happens.

What’s interesting is that loving-kindness meditation increases amygdala activation to suffering while focused breath meditation lessens it. Therefore, these meditations may be at odds with one another. Choose which one is best for you depending on your goals (reducing stress or increasing empathy).

You Can See Loving-Kindness Results In As Little As…

Eight hours of practice. In sixteen hours, you can see usually see changes in unconscious biases.

The longer you practice, the stronger these compassionate tendencies become.

Meditation Retrains Attention But Only With Continued Practice

Different types boost different types of attention:

  • MBSR improves selective attention.
  • Long-term vipassana enhances selective attention even more.

Five months after a three-month retreat, meditators had enhanced ability to sustain attention. Lessening attention occurred after 17 minutes of mindfulness for beginners. It’s clearly a more lasting trait the more you practice.

Gains are short-term and only last if you continue practicing.

Can You See Short-Term Effects With Meditation?

While long-term, consistent practice clearly yields better results, can you get results in the short-term?

Yes. Eight minutes of mindfulness lessened mind-wandering for a while.

10 minutes overcame the damage to concentration from multitasking in the short term. I’d suggest not multitasking in the first place, as the switching costs and damage to focus negatives any productivity gained.

Can Meditation Improve School Performance?

10 hours of mindfulness over two weeks strengthened attention and working memory, which lead to improved scores on graduate school entrance exams.

Can Meditation Reduce Negative Thinking?

When our mind isn’t doing anything that requires mental effort, it enters a default mode where the mind wanders. Your brain hashes over thoughts and feelings, usually negative and unpleasant ones, about yourself.

Mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation quiets this mode by having brain circuits silence the default zones. For beginners, you will see this effect during or right after.

With long-term practice, the activity reduces even further and it becomes an enduring trait. Even when the default mode occurs, the activity is lessened.

The result is that self-focused thoughts and feelings have less “stickiness” and decreased ability to grab attention.

Can Meditation Help With Illness?

There is a ton of scientific literature examining the effects of meditation on treating illness.

MBSR and similar methods can reduce suffering from disease but not cure it.

Imaging studies found that mindfulness training — as short as three days — produces a short-term decrease of inflammation. The more you practice, the lower these levels become. There is also an increased connectivity between regulatory circuity and the brain’s self system.

A daylong period of intensive mindfulness down-regulates genes involved in inflammation.

Can Meditation Help With Depression or Anxiety?

While not originally created to treat these problems, studies have shown promise with depression and anxiety disorders.

A meta-analysis of 47 studies found that it can lead to decreased depression (particularly severe depression), anxiety, and pain — as much as meditation with no side effects. As mentioned, it can reduce the toll of stress to a lesser degree.

Loving-kindness meditation may be particularly useful to those suffering from trauma, especially PTSD.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has become the most empirically validated psychological treatment with a meditation basis. Plenty more tests with this therapy on a larger range of disorders are under way.

There are occasional reports of negative effects of meditation, the findings so far emphasize the promise of meditation.

Can Meditation Help You Live Longer and Slow Down Aging?

After three months of intensive mindfulness and loving-kindness, there are increased in the enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular aging.

Long-term meditation may lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Current evidence is still inconclusive on whether short-term practice yields effects.

What Can Yogi Masters With Over 10,000 Hours of Practice Achieve?

At first, scientists had a hard time getting cooperation from the most highly experienced world-class yogis out there. But when persuaded by the benefit it may bring to people, 21 agreed.

Mingyur Rinpoche had the most lifetime hours of practice of the group: 62,000 hours.

When he meditated on compassion, a huge surge of electrical activity was recorded. His circuitry for empathy jumped to 800% activity compared to his rest level.

When he went on a retreat for four and a half years, his brain’s aging slowed. At 41 years old, his brain resembled that of a 33 year old.

As for the yogis as a whole, they have vast amounts of awareness based on the massive gamma activity and synchronization of gamma oscillations around regions of the brain detected.

Their strong awareness in the present moment (the ability to not get stuck in anticipation of the future or rumination on the past) was exemplified by little anticipatory response and rapid recovery to pain.

They show effortless concentration. It only takes a flicker of neural circuitry to place their attention on an object and little to no effort to hold it.

Finally, when generating compassion, their brains connect more with their bodies, particularly their heart — indicating emotional resonance.

What Meditation Is Right For Me?

It depends on your goal.

If you want to increase empathy, try loving-kindness meditation.

If you want to live longer and have a quick brain even when you’re old, do mindfulness or loving-kindness meditation.

If you struggle with stress and need helping reducing or managing it, try mindfulness or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

If you struggle with focus and concentration, try MBSR or long-term vipassana (consistently for years).

If you struggle with negative thinking and want to reduce this, try mindfulness or loving-kindness meditation.

If you have depression or anxiety, try mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) or loving-kindness meditation.

If you want to reduce inflammation from disease, injury, or other reasons, try MBSR, meditations similar to MBSR, or mindfulness.

If you want to improve emotional control, try any basic meditation (including basic breath) meditation for a long-term period.

If you want to improve pain tolerance from disease or anything else (like sports), try focused-breath meditation, MBSR, meditations similar to MBSR, or mindfulness.

Note: mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are different practices. Mindfulness involves being aware and mindful of your surroundings and experiences. Mindfulness meditation often means focusing that mindfulness to a specific action, emotion, or sound.

More important to just trying this is to stay consistent and keep doing it for years. I’ve written extensively about how to form and keep habits (even ones you hate doing) — something I’ve been successful with even though I sucked at it for most of my life. If you join my email newsletter (there’s email opt-in’s everywhere on my site), I’ll send you an email follow-up sequence for free that reveals my best secrets.

What Beginners Can Expect From Meditation (A Summary)

Beginners can see less stress reactivity. The earliest benefits come from compassion meditation: increased circuity for empathy, which Gary Vaynerchuk says is one of the key’s to his wealth and success.

In two weeks, you can expect less mind-wandering, improved attention and focus, and improved memory. Studies have shown increased test scores.

With 30 hours of practice, you can reduce inflammation.

A daylong retreat enhances the immune system.

While these results can emerge with modest time put in, they are fragile. Greater results come from daily, sustained practice as you’ll see…

What Intermediates Can Expect From Meditation (A Summary)

With at least 1,000 hours of practice, you get even lower reactivity to stress and less inflammation, strengthened ability to manage stress, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

You also get increased selective attention, reduced attentional blink (the split-second blindness when you shift your focus), greater ease in sustaining focus, heightened readiness to respond, and less mind-wandering. You have fewer self-obsessed thoughts, a weakening of the circuitry for attachment, a slower breath rate, and slower metabolic rate (the amount of energy your body consumes in a day).

Compassion meditation at this level brings a greater neural attunement to those who suffer (empathy) and enhanced likelihood to take action and help.

These meditative states can continue into sleep.

What World-Class Masters Can Expect From Meditation (A Summary)

“The state has become a trait.” -excerpt from the book Altered Traits

Then, there are those at the Olympic level, 27,000 hours of meditation or higher. These yogis show clear signs of altered trains — large gamma waves in synchrony among far-flung brain regions, a pattern not seen in anyone else.

While strongest during practice of open presence and of compassion, the gamma continues at rest to a lesser degree. Also, their brains age slower than normal brains.

Yogis can stop and start meditative states in seconds effortlessly. Their pain preparation and reaction are legendary. There’s little sign of anticipatory anxiety, a short and intensive reaction during the pain, and a rapid recovery.

This, of course, reminds me of the famous photo of the monk meditating while being burned alive as a peaceful political statement. Don’t click that link if you don’t like graphic images.

During compassion meditation, their brains and hearts couple in ways not seen in normal people.

Most importantly, their brain states at rest resemble the brain states of normal people while they meditate. The state has become a trait.

Meditation Is Not A Secret Shortcut For Success

Contrary to what Tim Ferriss and Improvement Pill will tell you, meditation is not the #1 key to success and happiness. Plenty of successful people have come forward who don’t meditate.

And just because many wealthy people meditate, doesn’t mean correlation means causation. Most people are right-handed. Does that mean that if you’re left-handed, you should chop off your left hand and become right handed?

Meditation is helpful and there are clear scientific benefits, as outlined in this article. But these are more fringe benefits. Do not go believing that meditation is the key to getting rich or that all your problems will go away if you meditate consistently for years.

Money will not down from the sky. At best, it may help with your focus, stress management, empathy, and emotional control so that if applied to income-earning endeavors, like sales or management, can boost your performance, which may lead to more money over time.

Warren Buffett has a popular quote that goes, “If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.”

Similarly, if meditation was all there is to the wealth game, the richest people in the world would be Tibetan monks.

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