04 December 2021

The dangers of meditation

What??  It's dangerous to meditate?  Herewith some brief excerpts from a recent article in Harper's, which presents the details of a case report of a young woman who had a frank psychotic break after attending a workshop involving prolonged daily meditation.  The material is absolutely convincing; the only question is whether such episodes occur only in persons "predisposed" to mental illness (depression, neurosis, psychosis), or whether these afflictions can be induced in an otherwise normal healthy mind as a result of intensive meditation.
Some clinicians believe that meditation can cause psychological problems in people without underlying conditions, and that even forty minutes of meditation per day can pose risks...

As in other studies, her twelve subjects said they had been sleeping better since taking up meditation five days a week. And the data seemed to support that for the group that was meditating less than thirty minutes per day. But any more than a half hour and the trend started moving in the other direction. Compared with an eight-person control group, the subjects who meditated for more than thirty minutes per day experienced shallower sleep and woke up more often during the night. The more participants reported meditating, the worse their sleep became...

On a vipassana meditation retreat in 2006, she told one of her instructors about her research. “The teacher kind of chastised me, like, ‘Why are you therapists always trying to make meditation a relaxation technique? That’s not what it’s there for. Everyone knows that if you go and meditate, and you meditate enough . . . you stop sleeping.’..

The Buddhist ascetics who took up meditation in the fifth century bc did not view it as a form of stress relief. “These contemplative practices were invented for monastics who had renounced possessions, social position, wealth, family, comfort, and work”... Monks and nuns sought to transcend the world and its cycles of rebirth and awaken in nirvana, an unfathomable state of equanimity beyond space and time... In other words, mindfulness was not invoked to savor the beauty of nature or to be a more present, thoughtful spouse. According to the Pali suttas, the point of meditation was to cultivate disgust and disenchantment with the everyday world and one’s attachments to people and things...  If meditation conferred any practical benefit, it was in helping ascetics “accept the discomfort of a hard bed and a growling stomach or in preventing them from being beguiled by physical beauty.”..

There are reliable ways to induce psychosis and other disturbances in a healthy subject—via drugs, sleep deprivation, and prolonged confinement or isolation. “If you deprive the brain of normal inputs—through sensory or social deprivation—that can produce psychosis,” he said. “And you can think of prolonged meditation as a form of deprivation.” The brain is accustomed to a certain amount of activity...

Britton’s research was bolstered last August when the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica published a systematic review of adverse events in meditation practices and meditation-based therapies. Sixty-five percent of the studies included in the review found adverse effects, the most common of which were anxiety, depression, and cognitive impairment. “We found that the occurrence of adverse effects during or after meditation is not uncommon,” the authors concluded, “and may occur in individuals with no previous history of mental health problems.”
A fascinating and counterintuitive article.  Those interested in this topic should read the full article, Lost in Thought.


  1. I have yet to read the article (I will), but this suggest that I've completely misunderstood what meditation is. I thought it involved thinking. I take breaks from doing stuff to sit and think several times a day, which is far from depriving the brain.

  2. Meh, typical case of "Some scientists think that under some circumstances, things happen". This is always a true statement, especially because it completely glosses over the meaning of the two "some"s and the missing qualifier "rare".

    An enormous problem of scientific communication is that when communicating, you have to gloss over a lot of details while explaining results because it would took years of study to understand them. However, the simplified message then gets often taken for absolutely and unequivocally true and science-deniers love to then use anecdotes to disprove these scientific "facts". Invariably, this anecdote can be explained in terms of the glossed over details. However, since this makes the discussion to complicated, this is very hard to do in public.

    Another way of saying this is that by ignoring the 'asterix' that all scientific results come with, where the asterix points to the boundary conditions, nuance and complexities that have been ignored for the moment.

    And this is why we get stuck with climate change deniers, holocaust deniers, creationist and anti-vaxxers.

    A good example to illustrate this with is the gravitational constant. Long before Newton, people know gravity existed. They may even have measured the gravitational acceleration as about 10m/s^2 in whatever units they were using. But then more precise equipment was built, and we discovered that this value changes across the world, specifically from the poles to the equator. Weird. Then came Newton who realizes that there's actually a formula that described the graviational pull in terms of mass and distance of the objects involved, and we realize that the gravitational pull on the moon is much less than on earth.

    Were scientists at any point of this trajectory of discovery wrong? Were the first folks that measured a value of about 10 wrong to say the gravitational pull was a constant because they didn't understand that there were parameters they could not imagine involved? No, they just were limited in their knowledge, and subsequent tests showed that the locations where you measure gravitation matters. And not only on earth, but in the entire universe.

    This is all to say that scientists are rarely wrong. They are however, often limited by what they can measure at the time, and the knowledge of the time. But this is difficult to grasp for many people because science gets simplified so often.

  3. "a cumulative ten hours and forty-five minutes, she sat cross-legged on a rug, her spine erect, and tried to focus on her breath." That sounds pretty extreme for a first day.

    It mentions hunger pangs, but not how much she was eating except she was "eating regularly" again when she got home. I wonder how much she was allowed to eat. at first glance it almost sounds like cult indoctrination techniques.

  4. No references to 'Some Clinicians', no reference to Britton's research, all the focus is on the one person, who may have, n fact, sought out the 10 day program because of emerging symptoms of psychosis.

    Correlation is not causation.

    Frankly this article offers no actual evidence that 'meditation is dangerous', and feels like a prime example of the horrible state of health and science reporting, even in respected magazines.

    No link to the sleepd study or how the patients were recruited, or the conditions under which sleep was obeserved or reported. It would not be unusual if meditationwas mimicking the physical effects of taking catnaps during the day which can cause disruptions in 'normal' sleep patterns.

    It is a far FAR cry going from this article to suggesting that meditation can induce psychotic breaks!

    1. I understand you are quite upset by the implications of this essay, but I think you've gone too far when you assert that there is "no reference to Britton's research." If you go to the source article rather than my excerpt, you would find "In 2017, Britton and her team published their findings in PLOS One, a prominent scientific journal."

      I copypasted that sentence into Google and with one click found the source -


      - which is not behind a paywall. Full data and methodology at the link.

  5. Posted this on Facebook. Here are two of the comments (public):
    1) "Pretty interesting. It matches what happens when people start having impaired vision. It's not uncommon to start seeing things that aren't there as the occipital lobe tries to hang on to its chunk of real estate. Apparently that's what dreaming is about as well. In the down time your brain imagines things to keep things firing. If I ever get disciplined enough to meditate, I'll keep it to 10 minutes!"

    2) "I used to do it for an hour, three times a day for years. It does actually change your brain patterns in not altogether desirable ways for a modern person who still has to work and deal with life. You do start not shutting off your brain at night and if anyone has experienced sleep deprivation psychosis, it can be similar. Your meditation, waking, and sleeping hours all start to bleed into each other and can be disorienting. That’s kinda the point though."

    I'm most interested in the moral implications: Meditation tends to be correlated with extra-goodness. Virtue. But, that's not been my observation.

    And, I suspect dedication to seeking enlightenment makes sense if there is such a thing as enlightenment. Much like seeking salvation. But, if there is no such thing, then what is it? A superstitious indulgence--or a way of developing discipline, but to what end? Discipline can be useful to anyone, doing anything. (I won't here mention a Nazi sniper, Gawwwdwin NO!)

    Daniel Quinn made the point that it wasn't until the many horrors of civilization were thrust upon us that humans began thinking in terms of escaping Earthly reality; then developing all manner of salvation-oriented belief systems. I concur.

  6. I'll acknowledge not having done a deep-dive into Britton's research, but I'll also point out that the discussion of it is highly suggestive of the "Texas sharpshooter fallacy" wherein a researcher looks for something of statistical significance which appears associated with a phenomenon - and when something is found, it's seen as causal. It's essentially targeting the error in otherwise solid research, and choosing data that's squarely outside of the confidence interval. Yes, each meditation center visited may have horror stories about people developing psychosis after participating in their program, but you could say the same thing about my local Taco Bell. That's not causation. I'm sure some people have first psychotic episodes following a game of golf, too.

    As a "those clinicians" (actually, a diagnostic crisis clinician) myself, I have to say that the behaviors that are described from the young woman at the center of the story are highly suggestive of a fairly straightforward, if tragic, case of schizophrenia, and she's pretty straight down the middle of the age group where this most often develops for females. It's also quite possible that her choice to seek services from that particular meditation program (with that BS marketing language) was actually a sign of emerging grandiose or spiritual delusion. While it's true that certain things can induce psychosis in otherwise healthy people, (especially drugs and sleep deprivation) I'm not aware of any that produce lasting psychosis in a manner that is distinguishable from an underlying psychotic disorder.

    I would absolutely encourage healthy people to avoid any meditation guidance that promises a "universal remedy" for anything, and I'd caution people to avoid any that is clearly founded in anecdotal/spiritually-based philosophy which is foreign to them and associates meditation with virtue. In certain states, we can all be highly susceptible to suggestion, and transmissible delusion is a very real phenomenon. There is nothing that I'm aware of and nothing noted in the article that suggests that focusing your thoughts on a matter of one's concern, or in service of taking control of those thoughts is a problem. Forcing things without clear evidence that it will help? Always a problem.

    My prescription? Don't join cults. Don't do lots of drugs. Avoid logical fallacies. Embrace science. Get help if things get weird.

  7. This (paywalled) article says that

    "Common adverse events included affective difficulties, distorted senses of self, derealization, hallucinations, delusions, interpersonal challenges, and susceptibility to false memory..."



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