I have a problem.
Other than my headache, that is. Because apparently, on a day like today, even when I sick with nausea and a headache and chest pain and ear pain and tremors in my hand, the only thing I can do is get angry about a Huffington Post article, go into the scientific journals, just to prove one sentence wrong.
All I’m doing is minding my business, trying to rest up after my first class today, browsing the reddit’s, and I come across this article: 10 Reasons Why Every Athlete Should Meditate. First things first: any article that labels itself as a list in the title tells you 3 things:
- They’re starving for attention and are looking for you to click. People love lists.
- They probably spent 15 minutes on Google finding these things (more below).
- Almost zero thought went into this article other than said-Googling and making sure they had proper grammar.
The biggest sin of science journalism, and by far the most common, and perhaps the root of all other sins, is thinking correlation equals causation. I know, I know, I know. It’s a CRAZY thing to think that just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean one must cause the other. But after working in a molecular virology lab, I’ve learned that if the molecular biologists have a hard enough time determining mechanisms, if it has to do with something as weird and barely defined as meditation, you are not going to get anywhere near causation, bucko.
Now, the way you can tell Robert Piper generated this list by Google is because his hyperlinks don’t direct you to the actual articles but rather to media releases. I mean, linking to the actual journal articles would take another…3 minutes/article * 10 articles…. 30 minutes. In the world of viral journalism, that’s like, a few lifetimes.
Specifically, the claim about meditation boosting the immune system intrigued me, because I thought, “There’s no way scientists have concluded this definitively, otherwise we’d all know about it!”. Sure enough, his hyperlink directed me to the Telegraph’s media release, which when I compared it to the media release from the journal who published the article, it was suspiciously really really close in wording but just enough off to avoid plagiarism. #classy. Sorry kids, citing a media release does not count! Definitely worse than citing Wikipedia.
So, screw it, I took the time to look up the what I thought would be an empirical article. Nope, it was a review! And a really long one (1). I specifically looked for the claims regarding the immune system, and the review cited 3 empirical studies. So I went and glanced those over. Here are the results! (disclaimer: I actually don’t know much about the immune system. Turns out, you don’t need to for this!).
Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation (2)
This article was the one I took most seriously, and the one I’ll give most attention to. Basically, they took a bunch of white people from a biotech company, randomized them, and had half of them go on a 8-week long meditation retreat. Talk about job perks, huh? 4 months after the retreat ended, they challenged their immune systems with an influenza vaccine, and measured antibody titers at 3-5 weeks post-immunization and 8-9 weeks post immunization, and then did a bunch of brain imaging as well. “Marginally significant” is a phrase used a lot in this study, essentially meaning that after manipulating their data, they were able to get it to be around p<0.1. (lol). In regards to the antibody data, they measured a 0.1 log difference in the growth of antibodies in the meditation group (those who went on the retreat built up slightly more antibodies. Like, just little).
However, let’s remember that on a meditation retreat, a person isn’t only meditating and then living the rest of their life exactly the same. Their diet, their exercise levels, and their recreation all change. So, there are too many conflicting factors, their data is only hovering on significance.
One year pre–post intervention follow-up of psychological, immune, endocrine and blood pressure outcomes of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in breast and prostate cancer outpatients (3)
Cancer patients go on a similar 8-week long retreat. They show “good” gains in plenty of physiological parameters. I’m not going to say anything more, because the main critique is below.
Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators (4)
This one is even more lol-zy. These punks went on a 3-month-long retreat where they meditated for 6 hours/day. Enough said. They measured telomerase activity, which is actually kind of cool and the results are interesting for reasons we’re not concerned with.
What does it mean if you’re taking people out of their daily lives, and changing them completely by altering their diet, their physical activity, the social structure they live in, and their recreation? How can you handle all of those confounding factors? And then, you measure things 3 weeks-1 year after these retreats, as though if after the retreat, the participants of the retreat have suddenly returned to the life they had before the retreat. LOL not likely.
And how can we apply this to real life? Who has the time to go on an 8-week retreat, let alone a 3-month long one, or who has time to meditate for 6 hours a day? We’re getting marginal results from participants who are putting in a lot of work. Furthermore, how can you apply this to professional athletes, who have to manage the daily stresses the rest of us face on top of being criticized by their fans and the media and working their body to physical extremes?
This all just beyond the pale of absurdity.
Look, I meditate. It helps me learn how to tune out the thoughts I don’t want to deal with, it helps me figure out how to lower the amount of ruminating I do, but it mostly helps me calm down and lower my heartrate before I go to bed. But we have got to stop calling out meditation as a salve for all of these problems when we have other things that work much better.
1) Perspectives on Psychological Science, November 2011, vol. 6, no. 6, 537-559
2) Psychosomatic Medicine, July/August 2003, vol. 65, no. 4, 564-570
3) Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 21, Issue 8, November 2007, Pages 1038–1049
4) Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011-06-01, Volume 36, Issue 5, Pages 664-681