Flawed meta-analysis reveals just how limited the evidence is mapping meditation into specific regions of the brain

The article put meaningless, but reassuring effect sizes into the literature where these numbers will be widely and uncritically cited.

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“The only totally incontrovertible conclusion is that much work remains to be done…”.

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Authors of a systematic review and meta-analysis of functional neuroanatomical studies (fMRI and PET) of meditation were exceptionally frank in acknowledging problems relating the practice of meditation to differences in specific regions of the brain. However, they did not adequately deal with problems hiding in plain sight. These problems should have discouraged integration of this literature into a meta-analysis and the authors’ expressing the strength of the association between meditation and the brain in terms of a small set of moderate effect sizes.

The article put meaningless, but reassuring effect sizes into the literature where these numbers will be widely and uncritically cited.

An amazing set of overly small studies with evidence that null findings are being suppressed.

Many in the multibillion mindfulness industry are naive or simply indifferent to what constitutes quality evidence. Their false confidence that “meditation changes the brain*” can be bolstered by selective quotes from this review seemingly claiming that the associations are well-established and practically significant. Readers who are more sophisticated may nonetheless be mislead by this review, unless they read beyond the abstract and with appropriate skepticism.

Read on. I suspect you will be surprised as I was about the small quantity and poor quality of the literature relating the practice of meditation to specific areas of the brain. The colored pictures of the brain widely used to illustrate discussions of meditation are premature and misleading.

As noted in another article :

Brightly coloured brain scans are a media favourite as they are both attractive to the eye and apparently easy to understand but in reality they represent some of the most complex scientific information we have. They are not maps of activity but maps of the outcome of complex statistical comparisons of blood flow that unevenly relate to actual brain function. This is a problem that scientists are painfully aware of but it is often glossed over when the results get into the press.

The article is

Fox KC, Dixon ML, Nijeboer S, Girn M, Floman JL, Lifshitz M, Ellamil M, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. Functional neuroanatomy of meditation: A review and meta-analysis of 78 functional neuroimaging investigations. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2016 Jun 30;65:208-28.


Keep in mind how few readers go beyond an abstract in forming an impression of what an article shows. More readers “know” what the meta analysis found solely based on their reading the abstract , relative to the fewer people who read both the article and the supplementary material).

Meditation is a family of mental practices that encompasses a wide array of techniques employing distinctive mental strategies. We systematically reviewed 78 functional neuroimaging (fMRI and PET) studies of meditation, and used activation likelihood estimation to meta-analyze 257 peak foci from 31 experiments involving 527 participants. We found reliably dissociable patterns of brain activation and deactivation for four common styles of meditation (focused attention, mantra recitation, open monitoring, and compassion/loving-kindness), and suggestive differences for three others (visualization, sense-withdrawal, and non-dual awareness practices). Overall, dissociable activation patterns are congruent with the psychological and behavioral aims of each practice. Some brain areas are recruited consistently across multiple techniques—including insula, pre/supplementary motor cortices, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and frontopolar cortex—but convergence is the exception rather than the rule. A preliminary effect-size meta-analysis found medium effects for both activations (d = 0.59) and deactivations (d = −0.74), suggesting potential practical significance. Our meta-analysis supports the neurophysiological dissociability of meditation practices, but also raises many methodological concerns and suggests avenues for future research.

The positive claims in the abstract

“…Found reliably dissociable patterns of brain activation and deactivation for four common styles of meditation.”

“Dissociable activation patterns are congruent with the psychological and behavioral aims of each practice.”

“Some brain areas are recruited consistently across multiple techniques”

“A preliminary effect-size meta-analysis found medium effects for both activations (d = 0.59) and deactivations (d = −0.74), suggesting potential practical significance.”

“Our meta-analysis supports the neurophysiological dissociability of meditation practices…”

 And hedges and qualifications in the abstract

“Convergence is the exception rather than the rule”

“[Our meta-analysis] also raises many methodological concerns and suggests avenues for future research.

Why was this systematic review and meta-analysis undertaken now?

A figure provided in the article showed a rapid accumulation of studies of mindfulness in the brain in the past few years, with over 100 studies now available.

However, the authors systematic search yielded “78 functional neuroimaging (fMRI and PET) studies of meditation, and used activation likelihood estimation to meta-analyze 257 peak foci from 31 experiments involving 527 participants.” About a third of the studies identified in a search provided usable data.

What did the authors want to accomplish?

Taken together, our central aims were to: (i) comprehensively review and meta-analyze the existing functional neuroimaging studies of meditation (using the meta-analytic method known as activation likelihood estimation, or ALE), and compare consistencies in brain activation and deactivation both within and across psychologically distinct meditation techniques; (ii) examine the magnitude of the effects that characterize these activation patterns, and address whether they suggest any practical significance; and (iii) articulate the various methodological challenges facing the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience (Caspi and Burleson, 2005; Thompson, 2009; Davidson, 2010; Davidson and Kaszniak, 2015), particularly with respect to functional neuroimaging studies of meditation.

Said elsewhere in the article:

Our central hypothesis was a simple one: meditation practices distinct at the psychological level (Ψ) may be accompanied by dissociable activation patterns at the neurophysiological level (Φ). Such a model describes a ‘one-to-many’ isomorphism between mind and brain: a particular psychological state or process is expected to have many neurophysiological correlates from which, ideally, a consistent pattern can be discerned (Cacioppo and Tassinary, 1990).

The assumption is meditating versus not-meditating brains should be characterized by  distinct, observable neurophysiological pattern. There should also be distinct, enduring changes in the brain in people who have been practicing meditation for some time.

I would wager that many meditation enthusiasts believe that links to specific regions are already well established. Confronted with evidence to the contrary, they would suggest that links between the experience of meditating and changes in the brain are predictable and are waiting to be found. It is that kind of confidence that leads to the significance chasing and confirmatory bias currently infecting this literature.

Types of meditation available for study

Quantitative analyses focused on four types of meditation. Additional terms of meditation did not have sufficient studies and so were examined qualitatively. Some studies of the four provided within-group effect size, whereas other studies provided between-group effect sizes.

Focused attention (7 studies)

Directing attention to one specific object (e.g., the breath or a mantra) while monitoring and disengaging from extraneous thoughts or stimuli (Harvey, 1990, Hanh, 1991, Kabat-Zinn, 2005, Lutz et al., 2008b, Wangyal and Turner, 2011).

Mantra recitation (8 studies)

Repetition of a sound, word, or sentence (spoken aloud or silently in one’s head) with the goals of calming the mind, maintaining focus, and avoiding mind-wandering.

Open monitoring (10 studies)

Bringing attention to the present moment and impartially observing all mental contents (thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) as they naturally arise and subside.

Loving-kindness/compassion (6 studies)

L-K involves:

Generating feelings of kindness, love, and joy toward themselves, then progressively extend these feelings to imagined loved ones, acquaintances, strangers, enemies, and eventually all living beings (Harvey, 1990, Kabat_Zinn, 2005, Lutz et al., 2008a).

Similar but not identical, compassion meditation

Takes this practice a step further: practitioners imagine the physical and/or psychological suffering of others (ranging from loved ones to all humanity) and cultivate compassionate attitudes and responses to this suffering.

In addition to these four types of meditation, three others can be identified, but so far have only limited studies of the brain: Visualization, Sense-withdrawal and Non-dual awareness practices.

A dog’s breakfast: A table of the included studies quickly reveals a meta-analysis in deep trouble

studies included

This is not a suitable collection of studies to enter into a meta-analysis with any expectation that a meaningful, generalizable effect size will be obtained.

Most studies (14) furnish only pre-post, within-group effects for mindfulness practiced by long time practitioners. Of these 14 studies, there are two outliers with 20 and 31 practitioners. Otherwise the sample size ranges from 4 to 14.

There are 11 studies furnishing between-group comparisons between experienced and novice meditators. The number of participants in the smaller cell is key for the power of between-group effect sizes, not the overall sample size. In these 11 studies, this ranged from 10 to 22.

It is well-known that one should not combine within- and between- group effect sizes in meta analysis.  Pre-/post-within-group differences capture not only the effects of the active ingredients of an intervention, but nonspecific effects of the conditions under which data are gathered, including regression to the mean. These within-group differences will typically overestimate between-group differences. Adding a  comparison group and calculating between-group differences has the potential for  controlling nonspecific effects, if the comparison condition is appropriate.

The effect sizes based on between-group differences in these studies have their own problems as estimates of the effects of meditation on the brain. Participants were not randomized to the groups, but were selected because they were already either experienced or novice meditators. Yet these two groups could differ on a lot of variables that cannot be controlled: meditation could be confounded with other lifestyle variables: sleeping better or having a better diet. There might be pre-existing differences in the brain that made it easier for the experienced meditators to have committed to long term practice. The authors acknowledge these problems late in the article, but they do so only after discussing the effect sizes they obtained as having substantive importance.

There is good reason to be skeptical that these poorly controlled between-group differences are directly comparable to whatever changes would occur in experienced meditators’ brains in the course of practicing meditation.

It has been widely appreciated that neuroimaging studies are typically grossly underpowered, and that the result is low reproducibility of findings. Having too few participants in a  study will likely yield false negatives because of an inability to achieve the effects needed to obtain significant findings. Small sample size means a stronger association is needed to be significant.

Yet, what positive findings (i.e., significant) are obtained will of necessity be larger likely to be exaggerated and not reproducible with a larger sample.

Another problem with such small cell sizes is that it cannot be assumed that effects are due to one or more participants’ differences in brain size or anatomy. One or a small subgroup of outliers could drive all significant findings in an already small sample. The assumption that statistical techniques can smooth these interindividual differences depends on having much larger samples.

It has been noted elsewhere:

Brains are different so the measure in corresponding voxels across subjects may not sample comparable information.

How did the samples get so small? Neuroanatomical studies are expensive, but why did Lazar et al (2000) have 5 rather 6 participants, or only the 4 participants that Davanger et had? Were from some participants dropped after a peeking at the data? Were studies compromised by authors not being able to recruit intended numbers of participants and having to relax entry criteria? What selection bias is there in these small samples? We just don’t know.

I am reminded of all the contentious debate that has occurred when psychoanalysts insisted on mixing uncontrolled case-series with randomized trials in the same meta-analyses of psychotherapy. My colleagues and I showed this introduces great distortion  into the literature . Undoubtedly, the same is occurring in these studies of meditation, but there is so much else wrong with this meta analysis.

The authors acknowledge that in calculating effect sizes, they combined studies measuring cerebral blood flow (positron emission tomography; PET) and blood oxygenation level (functional magnetic resonance imaging; fMRI). Furthermore, the meta-analyses combined studies that varied in the experimental tasks for which neuroanatomical data were obtained.

One problem is that even studies examining a similar form of meditation might be comparing a meditation practice to very different baseline or comparison tasks and conditions. However, collapsing across numerous different baselines or control conditions is a common (in fact, usually inevitable) practice in meta_analyses of functional neuroimaging studies…

So, there are other important sources of heterogeneity between these studies.

A generic forest plot. This article did not provide one.

It’s a pity that the authors did not provide a forest plot [How to read  a forest plot.]  graphically showing the confidence intervals around the effect sizes being entered into the meta-analysis.

But the authors did provide a funnel plot that I found shocking. [Recommendations for examining and interpreting funnel plot] I have never seen one like, except when someone has constructed an artificial funnel plot to make a point.

funnel plot

Notice two things about this funnel plot. Rather than a smooth, unbroken distribution, studies with effect sizes between -.45 and +.45 are entirely missing. Studies with smaller sample sizes have the largest effect sizes, whereas the smallest effect sizes all come from the larger samples.

For me, this adds to the overwhelming evidence there is something gone wrong in this literature and any effect sizes should be ignored. There must have been considerable suppression of null findings so large effects from smaller studies will not generalize. Yet, the authors find the differences between small and larger sample studies encouraging

This suggests, encouragingly, that despite potential publication bias or inflationary bias due to neuroimaging analysis methods, nonetheless studies with larger samples tend to converge on similar and more reasonable (medium) effect sizes. Although such a conclusion is tentative, the results to date (Fig. 6) suggest that a sample size of approximately n = 25 is sufficient to reliably produce effect sizes that accord with those reported in studies with much larger samples (up to n = 46).

I and others have long argued that studies of this small sample size in evaluating psychotherapy should be left as pilot feasibility studies and not used to generate effect sizes. I think the same logic applies to this literature.

Distinctive patterns of regional activation and deactivation

The first part of the results section is devoted to studies examining particular forms of meditation. Seeing the apparent consistency of results, one needs to keep in mind the small number of studies being examined and the considerable differences among them. For instance, results presented for focused attention combine three between-group comparisons with four within-group studies. Focused attention includes both pre-post meditation differences from experienced Tibetan Buddhist practitioners to differences between novice and experienced practitioners of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). In almost all cases, meaningful statistically significant differences are found in both activation and deactivation regions that would make a lot of sense in terms of the functions that are known to be associated with them. There is not much noting of anomalous brain regions being identified by significant effects There is a high ratio of significant findings to number of participants comparisons. There is little discussion of anomalies.

Meta-analysis of focused attention studies resulted in 2 significant clusters of activation, both in prefrontal cortex (Table 3;Fig. 2). Activations were observed in regions associated with the voluntary regulation of thought and action, including the premotor cortex (BA 6; Fig. 2b) and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (BA24; Fig. 2a). Slightly sub-threshold clusters were also observed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (BA 8/9; Fig. 2c) and left midinsula (BA 13; Fig. 2e); we display these somewhat sub-threshod results here because of the obvious interest of these findings in practices that involve top-down focusing of attention, typically focused on respiration. We also observed clusters of deactivation in regions associated with episodic memory and conceptual processing, including the ventral posterior cingulate cortex (BA 31; Fig. 2d)and left inferior parietal lobule (BA 39; Fig. 2f).

How can such meaningful, practically significant findings obtains when so many conditions mitigate against finding them? John Ioannidis once remarked that in hot areas of research, consistency of positive findings from small studies often reflects only the strength of bias with which they are sought. The strength of findings will decrease when larger, more methodologically sophisticated studies become available, conducted by investigators who are less committed to having to get confirmation.

The article concludes:

Many have understandably viewed the nascent neuroscience of meditation with skepticism (Andresen, 2000; Horgan, 2004), burecent years have seen an increasing number of high-quality, controlled studies that are suitable for inclusion in meta-analyses and that can advance our cumulative knowledge of the neural basis of various meditation practices (Tang et al., 2015). With nearly a hundred functional neuroimaging studies of meditation now reported, we can conclude with some confidence that different practices show relatively distinct patterns of brain activity, and that the magnitude of associated effects on brain function may have some practical significance. The only totally incontrovertible conclusion, however, is that much work remains to be done to confirm and build upon these initial findings.

“Increasing number of high-quality, controlled studies that are suitable for inclusion in meta-analyses” ?…” “Conclude with some confidence…? “Relatively distinct patterns”?… “Some practical significance”?

In all of this premature enthusiasm about findings relating the practice of meditation to activation of particular regions of the brain and deactivation of others, we should not lose track of some other issues.

Although the authors talk about mapping one-to-one relationships between psychological states and regions of the brain, none of the studies would be of sufficient size to document some relationships, given the expected size of the relationship, based on what is typically found between psychological states and other biological variables.

Many differences between techniques could be artifactual –due to the technique altering breathing, involving verbalization, or focused attention. Observed differences in the brain regions activated and deactivated might simply reflect these differences without them being related to psychological functioning.

Even if the association were found, it would be a long way to establishing that the association reflected a causal mechanism, rather than simply being correlational or even artifactual. Think of the analogy of discovering a relationship between the amount of sweat while exercising in concluding that any weight loss was due to sweating it out.

We still have not established that meditation has more psychological and physical health benefits than other active interventions with presumably different mechanisms. After lots of studies, we still don’t know whether mindfulness meditation is anything more than a placebo. While I was finishing up this blog post, I came across a new study:

The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 

Although we found a moderate increase in prosociality following meditation, further analysis indicated that this effect was qualified by two factors: type of prosociality and methodological quality. Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice. 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. Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and methodological quality of the study. We conclude by highlighting a number of biases and theoretical problems that need addressing to improve quality of research in this area. [Emphasis added].




School-Based Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Program (MBSR) fails to deliver positive results

No positive effects found for Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Program with middle and high school students. Evidence of deterioration was found in some subgroup analyses.

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No positive effects found for Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Program with middle and high School Students. Evidence of deterioration was found in some subgroup analyses.

mindfulness in schoolsWe should be cautious about interpreting negative effects that are confined to subgroup analyses. They may well be due to chance. But we should be concerned about the lack of positive findings across measures in the primary analyses. MBSR (a mindfulness training product trademarked and controlled by Jon Kabat-Zinn) and other mindfulness programs have heavily promoted as having wondrous benefits and mandated in many school settings.

The study [with link to the PDF]

Johnson C, Burke C, Brinkman S, Wade T. Effectiveness of a school-based mindfulness program for transdiagnostic prevention in young adolescents. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2016 Jun 30;81:1-1.


Anxiety, depression and eating disorders show peak emergence during adolescence and share common risk factors. School-based prevention programs provide a unique opportunity to access a broad spectrum of the population during a key developmental window, but to date, no program targets all three conditions concurrently. Mindfulness has shown promising early results across each of these psychopathologies in a small number of controlled trials in schools, and therefore this study investigated its use in a randomised controlled design targeting anxiety, depression and eating disorder risk factors together for the first time. Students (M age 13.63; SD = .43) from a broad band of socioeconomic demographics received the eight lesson, once weekly.b (“Dot be”) mindfulness in schools curriculum (N = 132) or normal lessons (N = 176). Anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns and wellbeing were the primary outcome factors. Although acceptability measures were high, no significant improvements were found on any outcome at post-intervention or 3-month follow-up. Adjusted mean differences between groups at post-intervention were .03 (95% CI: -.06 to -.11) for depression, .01 (-.07 to -.09) for anxiety, .02 (-.05 to -.08) for weight/shape concerns, and .06 (-.08 to -.21) for wellbeing. Anxiety was higher in the mindfulness than the control group at follow-up for males, and those of both genders with low baseline levels of weight/shape concerns or depression. Factors that may be important to address for effective dissemination of mindfulness-based interventions in schools are discussed. Further research is required to identify active ingredients and optimal dose in mindfulness-based interventions in school settings.

The discussion noted:

The design of this study addresses several shortcomings identified in the literature (Britton et al., 2014; Burke, 2010; Felver et al., 2015; Meiklejohn et al., 2012; Tan, 2015; Waters et al., 2014). First, it was a multi-site, randomised controlled design with a moderately large sample size based on a priori power calculations. Second, it included follow-up (three months). Third, it sought to replicate an existing mindfulness-based intervention for youth. Fourth, socioeconomic status was not only reported but a broad range of socioeconomic bands included, although it was unfortunate that poor opt-in consent rates resulted in high data wastage in the lower range schools. Use of the same instructor for all classes in the intervention arm represents a strength (consistency) and a limitation (generalisability of findings).

Coverage in Scientific American

Mindfulness Training for Teens Fails Important Test

A large trial in schools showed no evidence of benefits, and hints it could even cause problems

The fact that this carefully-controlled investigation showed no benefits of mindfulness for any measure, and furthermore indicated an adverse effect for some participants, indicates that mindfulness training is not a universal solution for addressing anxiety or depression in teens, nor does it qualify as a replacement for more traditional psychotherapy or psychopharmacology, at least not as implemented in this school-based paradigm.

eBook_Mindfulness_345x550Preorders are being accepted for e-books providing skeptical looks at mindfulness and positive psychology, and arming citizen scientists with critical thinking skills. Right now there is a special offer for free access to a Mindfulness Master Class. But hurry, it won’t last.

I will also be offering scientific writing courses on the web as I have been doing face-to-face for almost a decade. I want to give researchers the tools to get into the journals where their work will get the attention it deserves.

Sign up at my website to get advance notice of the forthcoming e-books and web courses, as well as upcoming blog posts at this and other blog sites. Get advance notice of forthcoming e-books and web courses. Lots to see at CoyneoftheRealm.com.