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Be Mindful of Meditation and Yoga Hype


Yoga and meditation are two related practices receiving a lot of attention for their potential brain benefits. A new study appears to support those benefits—but there’s more to the story.

In the study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 38 people were assessed before and after a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat. After the retreat, blood and saliva samples revealed chemical markers of lower anxiety, better neural development, and lower inflammation. The participants’ subjective well-being was also higher, with scores on measures such as depression and anxiety lower after the retreat. So, yoga and meditation are good for you, right? Well … maybe, maybe not.

Don’t Stretch the Truth

The study is promising, and joins other research supporting the benefits of meditation and exercise. After studies like this, hyped-up headlines often follow—e.g., “The power of yoga! Ancient spiritual practice benefits the central nervous system.” However, I’ll point out a few weaknesses in the study, because I think the scientific details are relevant when relying on research like this to guide your decisions about which activities to spend your time and money on.

The big issue is the study had no control group. The only people examined were already interested in yoga and meditation, and had the luxury of going on a three-month retreat. If I went away to do something I love for three months, I can imagine my hormones would chill out and my subjective well-being would increase. Would a retreat in which people sat on a couch watching Netflix and eating pizza for three months have similar effects? We don’t know, because the yoga retreat group was not compared to anybody else. But if someone does want to run the pizza retreat study, I volunteer.

This isn’t a criticism of the researchers; they acknowledge these limitations in the paper, and they took advantage of a good opportunity to gather data. But the limitations do demonstrate the need to be skeptical when any single study appears to imply that a lifestyle intervention is going to impact your physical or mental health.

Discover if Yoga and Meditation Benefit Your Brain

Many interventions show promise, but need much more scientific verification before being practically applied to your everyday life. Even strong studies that firmly establish effects for the average person don’t guarantee an activity will work for you. Activities like meditation do have some stronger studies supporting their brain benefits, so they may be worth a try—just make sure to verify they are actually effective with quantiative measures of cogntion.

This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.