Taking part in a meditation session has no greater impact on your mood or wellbeing than chilling in front of a nature programme, new research suggests.
A team of scientists reviewed more than 20 studies investigating the effect of various types of meditation, such as mindfulness, compared to other activities. They found meditation did have an overall positive impact on participants, but said the positive impact may be more limited than previously thought.
The scientists said meditation made participants feel “moderately more compassionate or empathic” than usual. But, much to our delight, they discovered watching nature videos could have the same impact. Looking at this adorable clip of David Attenborough befriending a baby rhino, we’re hardly surprised.
The study found people who meditated were more likely to report increased feelings of compassion or empathy compared to a “passive” control group of participants who were not given any tasks. However, the researchers did not see significant changes in compassion or empathy when meditators were compared to an “active” control group, who had been shown nature videos. They concluded certain activities, such as watching nature shows, “might produce similar outcomes to meditation”.
The study was conducted by scientists at Coventry University in the UK, Massey University in New Zealand, and Radboud University in the Netherlands.
As well as giving us all an excuse to watch more ‘Spring Watch’, the researchers highlighted “important methodological flaws” in many of the previous studies on meditation, suggesting the effectiveness of the practice may have been historically overstated. They noted past studies were often led by advocates of meditation and included the influence of meditation teachers. This could mean the results were impacted by bias. In fact “compassion levels in some studies only increased if the meditation teacher was also an author of the published report”.
What’s more, they noted participants were likely to have preconceived ideas about the benefits of meditation, which may have skewed their own self-reporting of their experiences. “The media portrayal of meditation as a cure for a range of mental health problems or to improve wellbeing is very likely to feedback into participants who will have a high expectation of the benefits of a meditation intervention,” the scientists concluded.
Dr Miguel Farias, from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, said the research should not be used to “invalidate Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices”.
“But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists,” he said. “To understand the true impact of meditation on people’s feelings and behaviour further we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered — starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation.”
The study is published in full in the journal Scientific Reports.