Sam Harris, Meditation, and Science

Atheist activists promote Sam Harris as one “of the world’s most respected scientists” who “celebrates science” by discussing “How do we become more scientifically literate?” and “How can we better educate society to value skepticism over faith?”

The notion that activist Sam Harris has some special ability or authority to teach others about scientific literacy or valuing skepticism over faith is laughable.  That other atheists view Harris like this is even more laughable.  After all, Harris is the man who makes a significant chunk of money peddling New Age wooHe is the man who wrote:

Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

It has always been obvious to me that Harris is simply expressing his own religious faith here.  After all, Harris is someone who has a lot of free time that gets spent meditating and yet is someone who is obsessed with his sense of self and how others view him.  What’s more, I see no evidence that Harris has superior abilities when it comes to compassion and patience.  The only thing he has going for him is the ability to employ the meditation teacher’s sleepy tone when he is making his apologetic points.

What’s even better is that a recent scientific study supports my skepticism.

Let me quote from Meditation does not make you a better person, study finds

Meditation does not make you a better person according to a new study despite widespread claims that meditation can make you calmer and more compassionate towards other people.

Researchers have found that despite popular beliefs that meditation can make people more compassionate and less aggressive the evidence for this is limited.

The research by scientists at Coventry University in the UK, Massey University in New Zealand, and Radboud University in the Netherlands, reviewed 22 studies involving 1685 people to investigate the effect of various types of meditation.

One of the authors is quoted:

“We did not find that meditation had any negative effects, however the good impacts can be compared to a placebo effect.

“A person may have the expectation of becoming a better person through meditating, and may believe that to be the case – but in fact this has not been proven.”

The meta-analysis found that meditation has no effect on aggression, connectedness or prejudice.

As for compassion, the meta-analysis uncovered something quiet remarkable:

Unexpectedly the study, published in Scientific Reports, also revealed that the more positive results found for compassion had important methodological flaws.

Namely compassion levels in some studies only increased if the meditation teacher was also an author of the published report.

Whoa.  When your positive results depend on an advocate being part of the research team, you essentially have something like a drug company promoting positive research results for the drug it is selling.  In other words, results that can’t be trusted by those who are scientifically literate.

How will Sam Harris responded to this scientific finding?  Is he going to celebrate it and dial it down when it comes to promoting meditation?

Of course not.  I predict he’ll ignore what science has to say about his faith and keep on promoting meditation the way Bill Nye promoted his magic water.


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16 Responses to Sam Harris, Meditation, and Science

  1. unclesporkums says:

    But as long as it’s not that eeeeevil irrational Christianity, they’ll take whatever footsoldiers they can get.

    Harris encourages the use of hallucinogens and Dawkins said he wanted to try LSD before he died.

  2. Dhay says:

    > I see no evidence that Harris has superior abilities when it comes to compassion and patience.

    Indeed, Sam Harris is the guy who has advocated the waterboarding of terrorist suspects, and who has envisaged a pre-emptive nuclear first strike should Muslims get nuclear weapons.

    > Unexpectedly the study, published in Scientific Reports, also revealed that the more positive results found for compassion had important methodological flaws.

    The research report reported that all of those studies which were suitable for meta-analysis for prosociality had methodological flaws:

    The methodological quality of the studies was generally weak (61%), while one third (33%) was graded as moderate, and none had a grading of strong.

    None were methodologically strong, most were weak; ‘weak’ translates to the experimental design being piss-poor. Thus:

    Overall, the weak methodological quality of the studies and the results for the moderator analysis indicates low confidence in the validity and replicability of the examined studies.

    The bulk of the report is a discussion of how most of the studies that were meta-analysed, likewise other studies of the effects of meditation, failed in meet best – and often failed to meet good – standards in multiple and multifarious ways; plus suggestions for how such studies could and should be conducted if they are to yield valid results. It’s an education, and well worth a read.


    Michael’s OP quotes from the The Telegraph article, which omits to mention a second main methodological flaw (and omits most of the other methodological flaws the researchers identified):

    We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

    When the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study there was an increase; when not, not. (My emphasis of what Michael’s quote said.)

    The second condition was when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one. An active control group, say the researchers, is one that didn’t take part in any meditation but did something else (like watching a nature video).

    Nine of the twenty-one selected studies included a control condition with an active task, which varied from watching a nature video to the use of other interventions, such as a time-management course. …

    So if you think about it… :

    … that the effects of meditation on compassion were only significant when compared to passive control groups suggests that other forms of active interventions (like watching a nature video) might produce similar outcomes to meditation.

    Or put bluntly, meditation is similarly effective at raising levels of compassion as, for example, a time-management course, or watching a nature video.


    Nine of the twenty-one selected studies used … The remainder used wait list control groups.

    If it’s not obvious, that “remainder” is twelve of twenty-one studies, ie the majority.

    The researchers didn’t tell us what a wait list control group might be, so I had to look it up:

    A wait list control group, also called a wait list comparison, is a group of participants included in an outcome study that is assigned to a waiting list and receives intervention after the active treatment group. This control group serves as an untreated comparison group during the study, but eventually goes on to receive treatment at a later date. Wait list control groups are often used when it would be unethical to deny participants access to treatment, provided the wait is still shorter than that for routine services. [Wiki]

    There’s three groups involved in this Wikipedia description, and all of them are patients needing medical treatment: there’s regular patients queueing for routine treatment, who don’t take part in the study at all; some patients are selected from the back of the queue to receive immediate treatment, jumping the queue; their outcomes are compared with those in the wait list control group, who are patients selected from somewhere in the middle of the queue; because it would be unethical to deny or delay treatment, these then get the treatment and also jump the queue.

    Got it? Now tell me what people need treatment by instruction and practice in meditation, to whom would it be unethical to deny or delay a meditation course? Call me a cynic, but I don’t reckon there’s any such person or group.

    I reckon those wait list control groups are in practice either the ‘before’ part of a ‘before-after’ comparison of meditators tested first on starting the course and again on completion – in which case the ‘before’ is not a control at all, the same people are in both “groups” – or these studies (all or some) are testing self-selecting newly beginning meditators hoping to reap the well-publicised alleged beneficial effects of meditation and comparing their test results with those of experienced meditators – who are of course those who stayed the course, ‘invested’ a lot of time, money(?) and effort, and didn’t drop out because they got discouraged by lack of progress. I note that course-starting meditators are not randomly selected but self-selected, and course-completing meditators especially so.

    In either case, people on a waiting list for meditation and mindfulness courses are sufficiently interested in and enthusiastic about meditation and its well-publicised alleged beneficial effects to sign up for a whole course (of usually eight weeks, but varies in the studies meta-analysed from ‘interventions’ lasting just three minutes to a three month retreat.)


    Does mindfulness increase empathy and compassion: the researchers tell us snipers are being trained in it, that they might become better killers; historically, the murderous samurai were Zen Buddhist trained; there’s an extensive modern history of gurus being sexual predators, and one of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s lieutenants thought nothing of persuading his male disciples to have unprotected sex with him – knowing, which they didn’t, that he was infected and infectious with AIDS. So although mindfulness and full-blown meditation might increase empathy and compassion in some, it evidently decreases them in others; no doubt the outcome depends upon expectations and intent.


    Actually, meditation (as contrasted with mere mindfulness at some level or other) is a difficult skill to acquire – Harris has told his readers so: he told that most people who think they are meditating aren’t, the monkey mind is chattering on unobserved; and that true proficiency apparently takes probably at least 10,000 hours of practice – or more likely a lifetime of practice, even for the talented. Were any of those people studied actually meditating?


    The bulk of the report is an excellent discussion of how the studies failed methodologically. Part of that is the “conceptual mist” surrounding mindfulness and meditation which these studies do nothing to dispel. My reading of the General Discussion section is, they but find poorly evidenced or weak correlations while failing to find, or even to seek, mechanisms or theoretical explanations of how mindfulness or meditation might cause prosociality:

    The majority of studies we reviewed presented very tenuous and unclear justifications for why a meditation intervention ought to improve prosocial outcomes. The research literature tends to swiftly reference the health benefits of meditation and/or mention the alleged prosocial effects of meditation in the Buddhist tradition.

    Ah yes, we know it works because ‘everybody knows’ it works.

    Also there, there is the alert that Buddhism is being mis-sold as what it ain’t:

    Further, this literature generally conveys the impression that Buddhism is particularly concerned with the promotion of prosociality and that meditation is the means to achieve it. This is a rather inaccurate understanding of a rich and plural religious tradition. Leading academics of South Asian religions have highlighted the Western misreading and reconstruction of Buddhism as a rational form of inquiry focused on meditation, which has been uncritically accepted by psychology researchers. For example, such authors highlight that for most forms of Buddhism, it is not meditation but the study of sacred scriptures that is the most valued means to achieve deep personal transformation. Other scholars have also cast a critical light upon the definition of mindfulness as a process of paying attention, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, regarding it as something different from what the Buddha scriptures describe – less than a form of attention or awareness to one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations, but rather a reflection upon the impermanence of all things, starting with one’s body.

    Or in simpler terms, Buddhist teachings emphasise detachment, not prosocial engagement. And it is primarily the study of the sutras which will effect that detachment – meditation or mindfulness is on and of impermanence, leading to that detachment. Traditionally, Buddhist monks are parasitic on their wider communities rather than being social workers, social justice activists, rice planters or irrigation ditch diggers – in practical terms, how compassionate is that.

    The bodhisattva vows (which I expect Harris will have taken by this advanced-level stage on his journey) look superficially compassionate, but can be read simply as the promise to be a diligent Buddhism evangelist – the “compassion” amounting to leading all beings to the complete detachment known as Nirvana or enlightenment.


    The meta-study looked at whether mindfulness and meditation has the the beneficial prosocial effects often claimed for it. Starting at the link below I have several responses in the same thread which reference research which shows that meditation can and often does have significant harmful effects, together with my comments on the level of, er, empathy and compassion shown by prominent meditation masters:

  3. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne is not one of nature’s meditators, he’s experienced a Sam Harris led taster at a conference and that’s enough. But not all is lost; for although Coyne plainly isn’t going to achieve any increase in prosociality via meditation or mindfulness, he and his bubble of like-minded people — Raoul Martinez, Robert Sapolsky and a few very vocal others — they are convinced activists for the value of “accepting determinism” and no-free-will; once we have all been convinced likewise and have become no-free-will determinists — whatever one of them looks like, for even Coyne, the master advocate, seems unable to converse in no-free-will determinist terms without getting knotted in lengthy circumlocutions — when we are all of us no-free-will determinists there will be a big, Big, BIG increase in empathy, compassion, and presumably in the other categories of prosociality likewise. (The other main categories, according to the meta-study above, are increased connectedness, reduced aggression, and reduced prejudice.)

    It’s one thing to make a grand claim, but how has Coyne’s work on fruit flies enabled him to tell his arse from his elbows on this matter. Of course, real science and reason will insist on his claim being demonstrated by methodologically sound scientific studies. Several studies, I think, since it should be repeatable, and it is apparently of such vital importance to the World that Coyne returns often and vociferously to the subject. And then the meta-study or two.

    How far has the research progressed so far? Nothing so far that Coyne has been able to proudly cite and parade — and I seem to recall one with findings counter to his claim, one he had to pooh-pooh.


    In contrast to Sam Harris (the path of meditation, as per the Buddhist Sutras) and Coyne (the path of no-free-will determinism, as per the WhyEvolutionIsTrue Sutra) Steven Pinker seems to think that atheism and Enlightenment values are the path to increased prosociality:

    Steve’s atheism, while omnipresent, is never the overriding theme of his work, though it’s an important explanation of what holds back the implementation of Enlightenment values. He then goes on to show how reason, science, and humanism have produced progress, promoting a salubrious morality, economic advance, peace, empathy and “niceness”.

    Hmmm. The foundation for Enlightenment values was Christian reason and science and humanism, surely; there were few atheists back then and for much of the time since; it is the Christian originals which have produced the initial progress and much of the subsequent progress, it was and is Christian “reason, science, and humanism” promoting Pinker’s “salubrious morality, economic advance, peace, empathy and “niceness”.”

    Pinker’s apparent claim (as reported by Coyne) that the Enlightenment values which have led to the progress he perceives were and are atheist values rather than Christian values is … is a claim.

    Anyway, whoever’s values they were and are, Pinker seems to see the spread of Enlightenment values throughout the World — actually, the cynic in me reckons this is code for the spreading of neo-liberalism, but that’s a side-issue, take him at face value for now — is the Way to increased prosociality.


    Harris, Coyne, Pinker: that’s three distinctly different routes to increased prosociality. Is any route’s efficacy more than a specious claim; do any of these have any valid scientific support.

  4. Dhay says:

    The meta-study keeps on giving; this is from the same section that refers to the “conceptual mist” surrounding mindfulness and meditation which the studies do nothing to dispel:

    The lack of a clear attempt to address underpinning mechanisms of meditation makes the literature more vulnerable to implicit magical beliefs about the power of Eastern contemplative techniques, even when adapted into medical and mental health settings.

    Ah yes, without those underpinning mechanisms of meditation — those missing and unsought for reasoned explanations and causation mechanisms for how meditation does or might work — the expectation that those who practice meditation or mindfulness will increase in prosociality is … is an implicitly magical belief.

  5. Dhay says:

    On the subject of magical beliefs, I see that ‘Professor Ceiling Cat’ has discovered there is a delusion termed “galeanthropy”.

    And he reports it with no sign whatsoever of self-awareness or irony.

  6. Dhay says:

    > Atheist activists promote Sam Harris as one “of the world’s most respected scientists, authors and biggest draws in secular humanism” who “celebrates Science & Reason” by discussing “How do we become more scientifically literate?” and “How can we better educate society to value skepticism over faith?”

    (I have reproduced the original wording, “Science and Reason”, rather than Michael’s paraphrase, “science”, to highlight that science is not the same as the New Atheist conference style buzzwords, ‘Science and Reason’ — whatever they are. Perhaps ‘Science and Reason’ is or are the idealised, perfect Platonic Form of science and reason, of which all Earthly science and reason is an imperfect copy — that would at least explain the hold which Plato’s Republic and its Cave metaphor have on some atheists, particularly those who are Street Epistemologists.)

    At the bottom of the Facebook promotional page from which Michael took his quotes there’s:

    Please Note: All Premium ticket holders will have fast-pass access for the book signing after the event

    Hmmm. These people who are so enthusiastic about ‘Science and Reason’ that they buy Premium tickets, so enthusiastic to become more scientifically literate ** — well, call me a skeptic, but isn’t there some magical thinking in valuing an autograph, or in thinking that a book is better or more valuable because it’s been autographed by the likes of Harris, Lawrence Krauss or Matt Dillahunty. Are they really into science, reason and skepticism, or is it a show, a sham.

    ( ** “How do we become more scientifically literate?” Don’t they know — are they that lacking in resourcefulness and initiative? Actually, it’s dead easy to become more scientifically literate, just read the scientific literature, read it as the original papers rather than the crappy journalistic gloss you get from the media or from the Richard Dawkins Foundation website. Oh, and do actually read them instead of just giving your offering of thanks and praise in verbal homage to the atheist goddess of wisdom, ‘Science and Reason’.
    For Harris fans I’d recommend this paper:

  7. Dhay says:

    Perhaps ‘Science and Reason’ enthusiasts are like Shin Buddhists, who believe that if they call repeatedly and with simple trusting faith upon the Name of Amida Buddha (who promised he would not enter Nirvana until even stones were enlightened, now that’s one heck of a vow) they will each be reborn into his Western Paradise, the Pure Land: o-mi-to-fo, o-mi-to-fo, o-mi-to-fo, o-mi-to-fo, o-mi-to-fo, o-mi-to-fo, o-mi-to-fo, …

    I sometimes wonder whether some atheists believe that if they repeat “Science and Reason” often enough they will be transported into the Western paradise of ‘Science and Reason’; just calling repeatedly and with simple trusting faith upon the Name suffices, it’s guaranteed.

    I sometimes wonder because it sometimes looks like it.

  8. Dhay says:

    The The Telegraph’s bottom-line quote from one of the researchers is telling:

    If you want to meditate because you want some quiet time and time to relax, I see no issues, but the benefits it can have on a person’s character are limited, if you want to be more compassionate go and volunteer at a charity.

    Got that? If you want to become more compassionate go and volunteer at a charity, says the researcher; it’s a no-brainer, really, much like “If you want to become fit go exercise”.

  9. Dhay says:

    The paper which Michael discovered and commented on in his OP (as I also have, in several responses), is “The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis” by Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias & Inti A. Brazil.

    I see it is not the only recent paper critical of the quality of current research into mindfulness and meditation. The Association for Psychological Science has an article, “Mindfulness and Meditation Need More Rigorous Study, Less Hype” which popularly summarises a linked paper by Nicholas Van Dam and (phew!) fourteen others; this echoes many of the same points.

    The article offers a “critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda” to help the burgeoning mindfulness industry replace ambiguous hype with rigor in its research and clinical implementations.

    A major problem is that researchers are researching different versions of mindfulness and meditation, and in different ways:

    Among the biggest problems facing the field is that mindfulness is poorly and inconsistently defined both in popular media and the scientific literature. According to the authors, there “is neither one universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers.” As a result, research papers have varied widely in what they actually examine, and often, their focus can be hard to discern.

    “Any study that uses the term ‘mindfulness’ must be scrutinized carefully, ascertaining exactly what type of ‘mindfulness’ was involved, what sorts of explicit instruction were actually given to participants for directing practice,” the authors wrote. “When formal meditation was used in a study, one ought to consider whether a specifically defined type of mindfulness or other meditation was the target practice.”

    “Without specific, well-defined terms to describe not only practices but also their effects, studies of interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) cannot provide valid and comparable measurements to produce reliable evidence.” As part of its proposed remedy, the new article offers a “non-exhaustive list of defining features for characterizing contemplative and medication practices.”

    Along with specific, precise and standardized definitions, similar improvements in research methodology must also come, the authors wrote. “Many intervention studies lack or have inactive control groups,” Van Dam said. The field also has struggled to achieve consistency in what it is being measured and how to measure those things perceived to be of greatest importance to mindfulness.
    [c/w links to the article itself, a commentary on it, and the authors’ reply; all are, sadly, paywalled apart from their abstracts.]

    Current research is not just conceptually fuzzy, it’s generally of a crap standard:

    Measured by the National Institutes of Health’s stage model for clinical research, only 30 percent of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have moved past the first stage, and only 9 percent have tested efficacy in a research clinic against an active control.

    The hype is a problem:

    “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed,” they wrote. …

    “We are sometimes overselling the benefits of mindfulness to pretty much any person who has any condition, without much caution, nuance or condition-specific modifications, instructor training criteria, and basic science around mechanism of action. The possibility of unsafe or adverse effects has been largely ignored. …”

    The Commentary reinforces that the research so far is far too narrow and excludes all but “one or two types of practice”, but shouldn’t: and just how much else the current research simply ignores, but shouldn’t:

    …(b) contemplative practices are varied, and the landscape of modern scientific research has evolved to focus almost exclusively on one or two types of practice to the exclusion of other forms of practice that are potentially highly impactful; … (d) key issues of duration, intensity and spacing of practice, and the extent to which formal meditation practice is required or whether practice can be piggybacked onto other non–cognitively demanding activities of daily living (e.g., commuting) remain as among the most important practical questions for disseminating these practices more widely, yet have received scant serious research attention …

    The Reply includes:

    We discuss special characteristics of individuals who participate in mindfulness and meditation research …

    Moreover, our reply highlights the serious consequences of adverse experiences suffered by a significant subset of individuals during mindfulness and other contemplative practices.
    [My emphasis.]

    As regards the first point, I note that in one study:

    [Of the 60] All but two had completed college, 25 (42%) had a Master’s degree, and 15 (25%) had an MD, a PhD or equivalent.

    That’s not your typical man on the London omnibus, that’s not even the usual untypical WEIRD subject of psychological research; that’s very untypical indeed.

  10. Dhay says:

    Nicholas Van Dam, lead author of that “The limited prosocial effects of meditation…” paper, together with a University of Melbourne colleague, has another article on the same theme; it’s in The Conversation and entitled “What is mindfulness? Nobody really knows, and that’s a problem”.

    Why? Well, it’s very badly defined:

    Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, body focus, curiosity, nonjudgmental attitude, focus on the present, and others.

    It’s equally ill-defined as a set of practices. A brief exercise in self-reflection prompted by a smart-phone app on your daily commute may be considered the same as a months-long meditation retreat. Mindfulness can both refer to what Buddhist monks do and what your yoga instructor does for five minutes at the start and end of a class.

    And very badly conducted:

    Another problem with mindfulness literature is that it often suffers from poor research methodology. Ways of measuring mindfulness are highly variable, assessing quite different phenomena while using the same label. This lack of equivalence among measures and individuals makes it challenging to generalise from one study to another.

    Mindfulness researchers rely too much on questionnaires, which require people to introspect and report on mental states that may be slippery and fleeting. These reports are notoriously vulnerable to biases. For example, people who aspire to mindfulness may report being mindful because they see it as desirable, not because they have actually achieved it.

    And has harmful side-effects, and for people in general, not just (but especially for) those with serious mental health problems:

    And while benefits have limited evidence, mindfulness and meditation can sometimes be harmful and can lead to psychosis, mania, loss of personal identity, anxiety, panic, and re-experiencing traumatic memories. Experts have suggested mindfulness is not for everyone, especially those suffering from several serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.


    The paper, “The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists” is quite interesting, if you have the time to read through it all; here’s some highlights:

    The Varieties of Contemplative Experience study investigates meditation-related experiences that are typically underreported, particularly experiences that are described as challenging, difficult, distressing, functionally impairing, and/or requiring additional support.

    The associated valence ranged from very positive to very negative, and the associated level of distress and functional impairment ranged from minimal and transient to severe and enduring.

    I am minded of Sam Harris’ “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” blog post (now moved to podcasts, also found as a chapter in Waking Up): a bad LSD trip is a traumatic nightmare, some bad trippers are permanently badly damaged mentally, but hey guys, it’s a wonderful taste of what Harris thinks spirituality is, and he’s going to try to get his daughters taking it; or rephrased, he’s going to get his daughters taking something which will give them a taste of what he thinks spirituality is despite the danger they will be scarred for life. Nasty man.

    A problem well known in Buddhist circles, is under-reported in research:

    Zen traditions have also long acknowledged the possibility for certain practice approaches to lead to a prolonged illness-like condition known as “Zen sickness” or “meditation sickness” …

    First, the vast majority (>75%) of meditation studies do not actively assess adverse effects [AE]; instead, they rely solely on patients to spontaneously report any difficulties to the researchers or teachers. However, patients are unlikely to volunteer information about negative reactions to treatment without being directly asked due to the influence of authority structures and demand characteristics. As a result, passive monitoring is thought to underestimate AE prevalence by more than 20-fold. …

    Shapiro (1992) found that 63% of meditators on an intensive Vipassana retreat reported at least one adverse effect, with 7.4% reporting effects negative enough to stop meditating, and one individual hospitalized for psychosis. …

    …it is worth noting that three of the categories most frequently reported by practitioners—Fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia (82%), Positive affect (75%), and Somatic energy (63%) were also among the most commonly reported by experts (72%, 50%, and 41% respectively). Re-experiencing of traumatic memories also had similar frequencies for experts (47%) and practitioners (43%).

    I find it interesting that “meditation-induced depersonalization”, something which despite Harris’ personal certainty and emphasis that we have no self, have no free will, that these are desirable states and that meditation is the route to achieving them …

    Meditation-related adverse effects that were serious or distressing enough to warrant additional treatment have been reported in clinical and medical literature. These include reports of meditation-induced psychosis, seizures, depersonalization, mania and other forms of clinical deterioration. Descriptions of meditation-induced depersonalization and other clinically relevant problems also appear in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

    Loss of sense of ownership was commonly reported in relation to thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Practitioners also reported a loss of sense of agency—or the loss of a “doer” of actions—in relation to automatic actions such as crying, to habitual actions such as walking, and to typically intentional actions such as speaking. Some practitioners reported even more fundamental changes in their sense of self akin to a loss of the sense of basic self or the minimal self such that they felt like they no longer existed at all or that they would disappear or be invisible to others.

    … “meditation-induced depersonalization”, the allegedly desirable fruit of Harris-style meditation, is listed in the DSM as a mental illness.

    (I presume that ‘hard determinism-induced depersonalization’, should it ever become the reality Jerry Coyne seems to want, would similarly become listed in the DSM as a mental illness.)

    Are these symptoms and impairments severe?:

    The vast majority (88%) of participants reported that challenging or difficult meditation experiences bled over into daily life or had an impact on their life beyond a meditation retreat or beyond a formal practice session. … The median duration of symptoms was 1–3 years, ranging from a few days to more than 10 years. While 10% reported minimal impairment, impairment tended to mirror symptom duration, lasting from days to more than a decade. The majority of the sample (73%) indicated moderate to severe impairment in at least one domain, with 17% reporting suicidality, and 17% requiring inpatient hospitalization.

    This high incidence of problems is in people with lower-than-average rates of mental illness and trauma exposure; for ordinary Joe Public the incidence should be higher:

    The sample is also non-representative in terms of demographics and related health risks. With 73% earning graduate or doctoral degrees, the sample represents the top 5–10% of educational attainment, and lower-than-average rates of mental illness and trauma exposure, which are known to be inversely correlated to educational attainment.

    And it looks like the ill-effects can strike not just the unstable, the ill-prepared, the badly supervised, they can strike — and probably will — anyone:

    … the results also challenge other common causal attributions, such as the assumption that meditation-related difficulties only happen to individuals with a pre-existing condition (psychiatric or trauma history), who are on long or intensive retreats, who are poorly supervised, who are practicing incorrectly, or who have inadequate preparation.

    Finally (for this response is quite long enough already):

    While the sample represented a range of meditative expertise, nearly half of the sample (43%) had more than 10,000 lifetime hours of practice …

    a) The ill-effects hit some very experienced meditators.

    b) Allegedly, during WWII a committee was planning on adding armour plating to those areas of Lancaster bombers which had the most holes on return — until someone pointed out these were the ones which returned, armour-plate those other areas; similarly, the people who should be tested for the adverse effects of meditation and mindfulness are not those who persisted towards and past 10,000 hours but those who didn’t, especially those who found they couldn’t.

  11. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris would so loooove you to take drugs: he tells us so at great length in “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”, and as a Chapter in Waking Up.

    He would definitely loooove you to take LSD, and I think he is fond enough of MDMA (Ecstasy) that he would recommend that also to you if he could but find any chink in a wall of scientific research reporting harm; definitely LSD, even for his beloved daughters, it will introduce them to states of mind sort of more or less like enlightenment, maybe they’ll persist with meditation after that, you too.

    I always knew Buddhists avoided drugs, indeed all intoxicants; this is from the Triratna Safeguarding policies and Ethical guidelines 2018 (Triratna used to be the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order):

    5. I undertake the training principle of abstention from intoxication. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.
    The Triratna Buddhist Community aims to provide support for the development of wisdom and
    compassion through deepening awareness. We aspire to engage with our practice and with each other with as much mindfulness as possible. We aim to provide supportive environments for those wishing to live without intoxicants. We will not serve alcohol or other intoxicants at Triratna Buddhist centres or events.

    How anti-intoxicant are they?:

    Smoking and e-cigarettes/vaping are not permitted on our premises.

    Not even vaping.

    Harris is out on an extreme Tantric anything-goes limb. Does any other Buddhist teacher teach their followers to take LSD?

    (I think the answer’s No, but if any do I’d like to know who so I can investigate.)

  12. TFBW says:

    Additional meditation research which probably doesn’t help Sam’s case: Mind-body practices and the self: yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement — Gebauer, Jochen, Nehrlich, A.D., Stahlberg, D., Sedikides, Constantine, Hackenschmidt, D, Schick, D, Stegmaie, C A, Windfelder, C. C, Bruk, A and Mander, J V (2018).

    Abstract: Mind-body practices enjoy immense public and scientific interest. Yoga and meditation are highly popular. Purportedly, they foster well-being by “quieting the ego” or, more specifically, curtailing self-enhancement. However, this ego-quieting effect contradicts an apparent psychological universal, the self-centrality principle. According to this principle, practicing any skill renders it self-central, and self-centrality breeds self-enhancement. We examined those opposing predictions in the first tests of mind-body practices’ self-enhancement effects. Experiment 1 followed 93 yoga students over 15 weeks, assessing self-centrality and self-enhancement after yoga practice (yoga condition, n = 246) and without practice (control condition, n = 231). Experiment 2 followed 162 meditators over 4 weeks (meditation condition: n = 246; control condition: n = 245). Self-enhancement was higher in the yoga (Experiment 1) and meditation (Experiment 2) conditions, and those effects were mediated by greater self-centrality. Additionally, greater self-enhancement mediated mind-body practices’ well-being benefits. Evidently, neither yoga nor meditation quiet the ego; instead, they boost self-enhancement.

    I wonder if Sam’s claim that the “illusion of self” eventually disappears under meditation is at all like the effect one can achieve by repeating a word ad nauseam until it sounds like a meaningless noise.

    See also for an opinion piece which concludes, “yoga alone may not be enough to dissolve the ego, but one psychological study does not invalidate thousands of years of Buddhist teaching and practice.” Maybe, but we have more than one study to work with.

  13. Dhay says:

    Or to reap the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, you could go for a run:

    … [the brain imaging researchers] saw relative damping down of activity in the “default mode network”, a series of linked brain regions that spring into action whenever we are idle or distracted. Your default mode network is the source of your inner monologue, the instigator of mind-wandering and the voice that ruminates on your past. …

    Raichlen’s was a preliminary study, but if corroborated in the future, it will lend fresh weight to the idea that running can be a form of moving mindfulness meditation. Brain scans show that meditation and running can have a somewhat similar effect on the brain; simultaneously engaging executive functions and turning down the chatter of the default mode network. Again, this seems intuitively right: in the midst of a run, you are likely to be immersed in the present moment, tuned into your bodily state, and conscious of your breath. These are all key aims of mindfulness-based practices. …

    You’ll end up fitter, too, and will avoid the dangers to your mental health posed by LSD and meditation.

  14. Dhay says:

    The writer of the The Guardian article above on how the mindfulness benefits of running are similar, both in principle and as measured by neuroimaging, to those of meditation — Ben Martynoga is quoted in the i newspaper’s article on how physical activity can help prevent mental decline:

    One of the most obvious reasons for this mental clarity, suggests Martynoga, is that running is a form of moving meditation. “Mindfulness meditation is all about focusing the attention on the present moment and focusing on the body, and in particular on the breath,” he says.

    “Most runners would agree that they are engaged with what’s happening with the heart and lungs when they are running and you have no choice but to be in the moment, thinking about the sensations in your muscles, concentrating on where your foot is going to fall.

    “Brain scans of very serious runners show enhanced brain activity in exactly the parts of the brain that are involved in attention, shutting out distraction, staying on task. And very similar things have been seen in the brains of very serious meditators.”

    So what’s special about meditation and mindfulness? The science — unlike Sam Harris, Martynoga is a neuroscientist who is apparently still practicing and apparently still on top of his game — the neuroscience tells us that the effects on the brain of serious meditation and of serious running are “very similar”.

    So what’s special about meditation and mindfulness? Why should I meditate or practice other forms of mindfulness when the mental health benefits of running training are the same, and the physical and social benefits of participating in a running club are probably much better. (That’s a rhetorical question.)

    Oh, and unlike meditation — at least as presented by Harris — runners don’t have to take LSD in order to discover a taste of running and to develop a taste for running.


    So is there a Unique Selling Point in favour of meditation rather than running. If so, it’s probably that meditation is a path to Enlightenment, to Nirvana, to the Cessation of a sense of self and to the Cessation of reincarnation.

    But is that Enlightenment even possible? Here’s Matthew Remski, plainly an informed and thoughtful Buddhist, talking about that:

    That Harris seems to believe that full enlightenment is possible should raise a red flag for those concerned about a new type of religious bureaucracy creeping into the market under the guise of secular rationalism. On the home page for “Waking Up with Sam Harris“, he writes [Dhay — yes, it is also in the book itself, Chapter 1, not just the publisher’s blurb Wremski saw pre-publication]:

    There is no discrete “I” or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. [Emphasis added by Wremski]

    He had me up to “entirely extinguished”. Because that’s pure speculation territory, which will ultimately serve no-one but those who are willing to hawk stories about the unverifiable accomplishments of their masters or themselves. No one can ever prove that the separate self-sense has been “entirely extinguished”. It’s actually an absurdity given the reality of the self-as-social-construction. It doesn’t matter how powerful your meditative technique is or how profound your experience of selflessness. When you emerge from meditation you will meet other people who will construct you as a self, and if your experience has not damaged your brain, you will comply.

    That complete Enlightenment is probably not possible, then; and Harris a fool for claiming it.

  15. Dhay says:

    For correct formatting, please un-blockquote after [Emphasis added by Wremski].

  16. Dhay says:

    > Harris is the man who makes a significant chunk of money peddling New Age woo.

    And now, the woo App:

    Discover your mind.

    Join Sam Harris—neuroscientist, philosopher, and bestselling author—on a course that will teach you to meditate, reason more effectively, and deepen your understanding of yourself and others.

    Discover your mind — and possibly harm yourself, see the thread OP and responses.

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