This study demonstrates a skin temperature reduction on the palms of the hands during the experience of mental silence, arising as a result of a single 10 minute session of Sahaja yoga meditation. However when people (non-meditators) were asked to do a simple relaxation exercise, under the same conditions, their skin temperature increased which is the opposite of what occured for those using the mental silence approach to meditation.
The outcomes of this study therefore suggest that “thoughtless awareness” may be both experientially and physiologically different to simple relaxation. Interestingly, all other studies of meditation that have studied skin temperature show changes similar to that of relaxation (ie that skin temperature rises) and none show reductions, adding further scientific weight to the idea that the mental silence definition of meditation may well be the best way to differentiate meditation from relaxation, hypnosis, sleep and other forms of behavior therapy!
Manocha R, Black D, Ryan J, Stough C, Spiro D, Changing Definitions of Meditation: Physiological Corollorary, Journal of the International Society of Life Sciences, Vol 28 (1), Mar 2010
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Dr Ramesh Manocha recently had a paper published titled “Using meditation for less stress and better wellbeing; A seminar for GPs”. The paper detailed a study in which 293 doctors were taught meditation in order to reduce stress and increase wellbeing. The abstract and full paper can be found here.
The fact that the mental silence construct, more than any other factor my research, correlated positively with a wide range of health measures raises interesting implications in several areas of study. The findings emanating from my research imply that the notion of mental silence and its associated yogic philosophy, may be important in the ongoing development of our understanding of meditation and the various definitions and taxonomies that relate to it. It also provides some new clues for scholars interested in the “essential factors” of religiosity and the question as to why some forms of religiosity are beneficial and others not. Furthermore, it provides empirical data that may help to progress the ongoing debate about the theoretical differences between “religiousness” and “spirituality”. Perhaps most important of all they provide empirical evidence of a positive relationship between a well-defined state of consciousness and health and wellbeing. That, it is asserted, constitutes a significant contribution to the nascent field of consciousness research as well as our understandings of health. It implies a nexus between religiosity, consciousness and health that is accessible to measurement. The practical ramifications are that meditation may have a valuable role to play in the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental illness primarily as a result of the beneficial impact of the mental silence experience.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
In view of the seriousness of some of the reactions described above it is questionable whether all forms of meditation can be viewed as “generally safe for general consumption”. Moreover, given that recent reviews of meditation have clearly demonstrated a lack of convincing evidence for a specific effect, the importance of developing a comprehensive understanding of meditation’s adverse effects, and the risk to both healthy and unwell populations is of considerable importance. I propose that a more cautious set of clinical recommendation guidelines be considered until more thorough, independent studies are done.
A simple guideline may be that candidates should be recommended to experienced instructors with health professional backgrounds and that referring clinicians should screen for history/susceptibility to serious mental illness. It may be also appropriate to avoid recommending methods in which commercialisation or similar considerations may lead to a conflict of interest. There are many meditation techniques that can be accessed on a low fee/non-commercial or free of charge basis and these ought to be recommended over expensive, commercialised methods. Should negative experiences occur, novices should be advised to cease practising the techniques immediately.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Follow-up data, data obtained some time after the trial, is important as it gives an indication of how durable the effects of meditation might be. Unlike modern Western therapeutic thinking however, meditation was not originally designed to be used as a course of treatment so much as to be part of an ongoing lifestyle thus implying that the benefits of meditation are likely to persist in the follow-up phase only so long as the person chooses to meditate regularly. Meditation instructional programs are usually relatively intense and it is therefore worthwhile determining whether changes brought on by the instructional program can be maintained when participants are left to continue unsupervised with whatever skills they have acquired in the more formal phase of their training. Given that consistent evidence for a specific effect is lacking even within the intervention phase of the 120 randomised controlled trials my review, it is even more unlikely that evidence for an effect will be detectable in the follow-up phases. Of the entire sample of 120 studies in my review, 76 studies did not include any follow-up assessment strategies.
It might also be argued that, since researchers tend to be hampered by lack of resources, the primary question as to whether meditation has any specific effects ought to take priority over questions about the durability of its effects, if there are any. It is therefore understandable that many trials have not included follow-up assessments in their design. For this reason, it was decided that more in depth analysis of follow up data would be of little value to the primary questions set out in my review.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
In order to effectively tease out the effects of mental silence as opposed to the effects of other aspects of Sahaja Yoga meditation it was obviously necessary to use randomised controlled trial methodology. Having refined the practical approach in previous clinics it became possible to develop a standardised, instructional strategy whose structure could also be mirrored in control strategies in order to optimise the exclusion of non-specific effects.
The first attempt at this was a well-designed RCT involving 59 participants in which SYM was compared to a standard stress management programme for sufferers of moderate to severe asthma (on pre-stabilised, optimised treatment but who remained symptomatic). This trial was designed to compare two similarly active and credible interventions in which the main critical difference was the use of mental silence in the SYM group. While both groups experienced similar improvements in a number of outcome measures, the SYM group demonstrated significantly greater improvements in clinically important subjective measures such as aspects of asthma specific quality of life, mood state and, notably, an objective measure of disease severity known as airway hyper-responsiveness. The outcomes suggest: first, that mental silence does appear to have a specific effect on mood as well as some aspects of quality of life; second, that mental silence also has some effect on pathophysiology itself. Although well designed the sample size was small and drop out rates were somewhat higher than expected thereby raising the possibility that important effects were not detectable because of type 2 errors in the statistical analysis. A larger sample size was needed to overcome this possibility. Moreover, although mental silence had been compared to stress management, it would be more informative to determine its effect in comparison to an intervention that more closely resembled a non-mental silence approach to meditation.
Taking these considerations into account, a second, larger RCT of mental silence orientated meditation is reported. SYM, as an example of the mental silence approach, was compared to a “non-mental silence” approach to meditation. SYM was, on average, twice as effective as the comparator in reducing work related stress, general depressive symptoms and anxiety.
Thus in two well-designed RCTs in which the mental silence approach to meditation was compared to highly credible and active controls, substantial differences in therapeutic effects were observed, clearly suggesting that a specific effect is associated with mental silence orientated meditation techniques.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Meditation is widely perceived in the West as an effective method of reducing stress, and enhancing wellbeing. In Australia, a survey conducted by Kaldor (2002) of a randomly selected but representative sample drawn from the state of Western Australia (n=1,033) found that 11% of respondents had practiced meditation at least once. The Australian Community Survey (ACS), conducted by the National Church Life Survey (2004) found that 1.5 million Australians had tried meditation within 12 months of the time of the survey and that while 29% of those surveyed found prayer to be a source of peace and wellbeing, 24% had used meditation to achieve the same effect! Only 21% reported church attendance as a source of peace or wellbeing. In fact the ACS reports that although only about 20% of Australians attend church monthly or more often “around 33% of Australians pray or meditate at least weekly”.
This situation in Australia reflects trends in other Western countries. In 2002 a National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), undertaken by the Centers [sic] for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States administered to 31,000 representative adults, demonstrated that 8% of respondents had practiced meditation at some time. That biomedically trained physicians in Australia were also advising patients about the therapeutic effects of meditation, was demonstrated when Pirrotta conducted a survey of Australian GPs in 2000.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
In some ways the fact that specific effects appear to be associated with the mental silence experience poses a challenge to the philosophical underpinnings of Western culture by not only describing a state of non-thought, but also demonstrating that this state is accessible and of practical importance to the general population.
The cogito ergo sum argument essentially states that “I am thinking therefore I exist”. To some extent Western culture’s difficulty in apprehending the idea of non-thought is the result of its Cartesian underpinnings — the idea that one cannot exist if one is not thinking. The metaphysical implications of Descartes’ phrase, which equate thinking activity with self identity contrast sharply with the Eastern metaphysical idea that existential reality can be perceived only when one is not thinking, which might be stated in Latin as sum cogito ergo (I am, therefore I think)!
The ancient Eastern perspective on meditation, the mind, consciousness and health has here been demonstrated to have an important potential role to play in the health and wellbeing of people both in the East and West.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
In light of the number of studies reporting adverse effects from meditation broad based surveys need to be conducted, and given that studies such as Kaldor’s (2002) suggest that up to 10% of the population may have tried meditation at some time, a direct-to-public cross sectional survey may be sufficiently effective in quantifying adverse effect rates. Also important are controlled observational studies with a specific focus on detecting, characterising and quantifying adverse reactions. Moreover, meditation should not be the only modality assessed but instead, the opportunity should be taken to assess the effects of all related quasi therapeutic practices including hypnosis, faith healing and Qigong, Reiki and other new age practices. Combining the outcomes from these different data gathering strategies on a wide variety of contemplative and new age practices will not only help us understand adverse effects associated with meditation but also provide a perspective with regard to related practices. Such information will hopefully help to explain why a practice traditionally described as beneficial seems to be associated with a consistent reporting rate of adverse events.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Probably the most thorough and up to date review of meditation research was published in 2007 by a team led by Ospina, specifically contracted by the US Department of Health and Human Services to assess the evidence base. They included both randomised and non-randomised trials. In their assessment of more than 800 studies they concluded:
“Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterised by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.”
Ospina’s review represented a massive effort by a large team of researchers. Its thorough and comprehensive nature ensures that its contribution to the field of meditation research will be of great value. There are a number of features in the review’s design however that would seem to prevent important questions about specific effects and related issues from being clearly answered, such as:
- The inclusion of a wide variety of comparative studies, not just randomised controlled trials.
- Techniques that may not be widely accepted as meditation, such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong. These practices include meditation as a component of their practice but also include many other practices such as physical exercise, dietary modification and other lifestyle choices whose confounding and non-specific effects are difficult to separate from any effects of meditation.
- Effect size calculations did not seem to take into account the heterogeneity of control groups and their widely varying ability to confound outcomes since the control methods themselves elicit both non-specific and, in some cases, specific effects.
Dr Ramesh Manocha