New research casts doubt on the claim that meditation makes us more compassionate and empathetic. According to an international team of researchers who performed a meta-analysis on more than 20 studies, the moderately positive effects reported by previous studies can be explained by poor methodology and bias.
"The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many. We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one's feelings and behaviours towards others," said Dr. Miguel Farias, from Coventry University's Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, in a statement.
The scientists at Coventry University in the UK, Massey University in New Zealand, and Radboud University in the Netherlands only included randomized controlled studies in their analysis. All the studies involved in the meta-analysis involved secular meditation techniques like mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, rather than yoga or Tai-Chi, which are typically taught based on religious beliefs.
The researchers' investigation found that while some studies seem to indicate an overall positive impact, as far as improving compassion and empathy is concerned, the effect is only moderate compared to those who did not perform an emotionally-engaging activity.
What's more, when scrutinized, those studies which reported the more positive results had important methodological flaws. For instance, in some studies, compassion levels increased only when the meditation teacher was also an author of the published paper.
"Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found. Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation. We also found that the beneficial effect of meditation on compassion disappeared if the meditation teacher was an author in the studies. This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results," Farias said.
Overall, the researchers concluded that the previous assessments, which reported a positive effect on people's emotional engagement, may be the result of methodological flaws and biases. And while the new findings suggest that meditation doesn't make you "a better person", they do not negate the other positive impacts reported by other studies. A meta-analysis (a study of studies), which included 18 trials totaling 846 participants, found “mind-body practices" such as meditation or Tai Chi reduce the activity of genes related to inflammation. Another study found that meditation can act like painkillers, but doesn't release opioids. There is also evidence that meditation techniques improves mood, reduces depression symptoms, improves cardiovascular health, alters cellular activity, and might even slow down the effects of Alzheimer's disease.
In other words, there are plenty of science-backed reasons to meditate. It's just you shouldn't expect to become more compassionate or tuned to other people's feelings because of it.
"None of this, of course, invalidates 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," Farias 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," he added.
Scientific reference: Ute Kreplin et al, The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-20299-z.