| March 18, 2013 | 15 Comments

From the QualiaSoup series of videos, this is a terrific examination of the concept of Superstition.

Category: Videos

Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at

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  1. StanPengelly StanPengelly says:

    I wonder if perhaps the same thing can be said of meditation and its positive effects? Does it truly work, or does it simply behave a placebo?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      This is a good question, Stan. I think a number of Ted’s podcasts with scientists make some effort at answering that question. It’s still early days yet but my educated guess based on preliminary results is that meditation will be shown to have some positive effects. BUT, obviously meditation isn’t good for everything, and not every form of meditation will work the same way. So we need to be careful in defining which end-points we’re after, and which practice we’re using.

      • mufi says:

        Doug: At what point, in your opinion, does the research on meditation’s effects pass the lowly status of being merely “preliminary”?

        I ask, because I seem to recall our having had this conversation before, in which you suggested that a systematic review from a reputable source (e.g. the Cochrane Collaboration) would do the trick for you. I later produced examples of such reviews* that seemed to satisfy you. Yet, now you’re back to calling the research results “preliminary.”

        Have you since raised the bar?

        * I recall that one of these reviews was more indirect evidence, as the subject was DBT, which employs Buddhist mindfulness techniques. The other one, however, on MBSR provided more direct evidence for positive effects from meditation (though its source is the Campbell Collaboration, an affiliate of Cochrane, that focuses on “education, crime and justice, and social welfare”).

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Good question, mufi. I guess my approach is that when someone asks “Does meditation truly work?” in an everyday context, one is expecting a more generalized answer than whether DBT (a procedure with some mindfulness components) works on borderline personality disorder. I think we should be careful not to overgeneralize from a limited context.

          The question as to whether meditation truly works is a difficult one even to phrase in a scientifically meaningful way, and part of the question is how to work that out. But perhaps it means something like, “Do mindfulness, concentration, and metta meditations work to significantly decrease measures of suffering, significantly increase measures of happiness, in otherwise healthy people?”

          That said, the effectiveness of DBT in borderline personality disorder (and the Campbell material) is part of what makes my guess both optimistic and somewhat educated.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: Thanks for responding in the same spirit that I intended (i.e. one of sincere curiosity, rather than of antagonism).

            As I suggested in the note above, the Campbell/MBSR review is more directly relevant than the Cochrane/DBT review, so it makes sense to focus more on the former. (Simply google “campbell collaboration and mbsr” for the sources.)

            That said, if we still basically agree on the methodology (say, from a critical consumer’s point-of-view), then what we can now reasonably say that we “know” is that:

            MBSR has a moderate and consistent effect on a number of measures of mental health for a wide range of target groups. It also appears to improve measures of personal development such as empathy and coping, and enhance both mindfulness, quality of life and improve some aspects of somatic health. Hardly any included studies measured either social function or work ability. There is a paucity of data on long-term effects.

            I don’t know if you would interpret this conclusion as a “significant decrease in measures of suffering” or as a “significant increase in measures of happiness” in “otherwise healthy people”, largely because I don’t know exactly how you define these terms.

            But suffice it to say that for me this conclusion warrants such (admittedly unscientific and imprecise) language.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Hi mufi. I guess I would consider those sort of “borderline plus” results. Let’s see if Cochrane picks them up, and to what extent they generalize from a mental health paradigm to a mental betterment paradigm.

            Also, Campbell’s field is not health science, which gives some pause given that that constitutes much of the focus of their review. (Why didn’t the review come from Cochrane?)

            Just something to consider. In the fulness of time this will all work itself out.

          • mufi says:

            From the Cochrane web site:

            The Campbell Collaboration (named after Donald Campbell, an American psychologist and thinker) is a sibling organisation to The Cochrane Collaboration which prepares, maintains and promotes the accessibility of systematic reviews in areas such as education, criminal justice, social policy and social care.

            That said, the difference between “health care”, which is Cochrane’s stated focus, and these other domains is meaningful, but not to the point where there’s no likely overlap.

            More importantly, I can think of no reason to judge Campbell as any less reliable than Cochrane. After all, they are sibling organizations with (as far as I can tell, from a lay person’s angle) very similar review standards.

            If you know otherwise, then I’m interested in hearing about it.

            Otherwise, I suspect there may be some needless hair-splitting happening here.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            As you say, it’s a meaningful difference. Are people expert in overseeing “social welfare” studies (the phrasing on Campbell’s site) necessarily expert in overseeing “health care” studies? Offhand, I would not assume so.

            Nevertheless, I am willing to take their review as “borderline plus” rather than “borderline minus” for the reasons you suggest.

            I’m not worried about being overly picky or hair-splitting. When it comes to purported health claims, it’s better to be picky than the reverse. As I say, the stance is most likely only going to be temporary, anyhow.

  2. mufi says:

    Are people expert in overseeing “social welfare” studies (the phrasing on Campbell’s site) necessarily expert in overseeing “health care” studies? Offhand, I would not assume so.

    Offhand, perhaps not. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that at least one of the reviewers (Michael de Vibe) is a physician.

    Besides, the bulk of the review’s conclusion concerns “measures of mental health” and pro-social traits like “empathy and coping.” That Cochrane would have judged this topic to be more appropriate for its sibling institution seems highly likely to me.

    If so, then I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Cochrane review, as I might just as well be committing a category error.

  3. mufi says:

    Just for full disclosure: I’m nearing the end of neuroscientist/meditator Richard J. Davidson’s (partly autobiographical) book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them, which has had me enthralled. Davidson’s 2003 study of MBSR (which Jon Kabat-Zinn participated in) is one of the 31 studies included in the Campbell review.

  4. StanPengelly StanPengelly says:

    Doug & Mufi:

    thank you for answering my question. What caused me to ask it was the section in the Superstition presentation which detailed the study where a group of IBS students were given pills which they were told had no active ingredients. The experimenter even labeled the pill bottle PLACEBO and yet placebo-like positive effects were noted among the test subjects. I wonder if someone produced and sold a “meditation pill” whether the number of people who reported positive effects would just about equal the number of people who actually did meditation, the old fashioned way. If, in turn, people were told the meditation pill was simply a placebo, whether these people would continue to report positive effects.

    I know my reasoning is a little convoluted, but I’ll boil it down to this: the Superstition video makes me think the human mind can be quite “mushy”. If a group of people can report positive effects even when they know they are being given a placebo, then maybe meditation could also be a placebo too. It works because people think it works or want it to. Not because it does.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      If these studies (e.g., the ones in Cochrane and Campbell, above) are well-designed, they should include a placebo control group. E.g., a group that was told to do something like sit quietly for the same period of time that the other group was meditating. Then effectiveness should be gauged by the extent to which the meditating group had effects that the placebo control group did not.

      I know that some meditation studies have used such control groups. If there were no controls, then the study would not be well designed, since the problem you cite becomes very real.

  5. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Hey, Stan, nice to see you again!

    I’m at the Center for Mindfulness yearly scientific conference, and a number of solid-seeming studies have been presented. Of particular note is one by J. David Creswell in which a three day MBSR informed intensive was administered, with a very specific control group that received activity to match as closely as possible the same kinds of attention the mindfulness group got, but without attending to experience. That is, so far, the best effort I’ve seen so far on designing for a placebo control for a mindfulness based intervention. They didn’t stop at self report, either; David is a hard scientist who took blood samples and measured for stress markers, before and several months later. He and his co-researcher were very open about the current constraints they had, but we’ll have him on the podcast to discuss it further.

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