We constantly hear about the benefits of mindfulness meditation: It’s now being taught in schools and at work and is often touted as the “magic pill” for what ails you. Here are two papers that challenge this view.
Although there are many benefits to mindfulness meditation, here are two studies that look at its other side. The first study found that narcissists who practice mindfulness meditation may actually experience a decrease in empathy because it may have "ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self aggrandizing thoughts, at the expense of focusing on the mental states of others.” The second study found that it’s not uncommon for meditators to have long-lasting negative experiences.
Mindfulness May Actually Decrease Empathy in Narcissists
One of the things that mindfulness is supposed to help us with is cultivating compassion, or empathy. But this claim has rarely been tested experimentally and no study has investigated the effects of mindfulness on empathy in narcissistic individuals.
In this study from the University of Amsterdam, the researchers divided 158 participants into three groups - a mindfulness group, a relaxation group, and a control group. The mindfulness group did a five minute guided mindfulness meditation where they focused on their breath and observed their thoughts without judgment. The relaxation group practiced five minutes of relaxation exercises. The control group were just asked to let their minds wander.
After the exercises, the researchers assessed their cognitive empathy - the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings and take other people’s perspectives - using the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test in which participants identify emotions from photographs of people’s eyes. The researchers also assessed their affective empathy - the ability to share other people’s feelings and feel emotional concern for other people’s emotions or experiences - by having them play a game of Cyberball, a ball-tossing game in which one player is excluded.
Mindfulness actually reduced the cognitive empathy of narcissists, the very individuals who need it most!
The researchers expected that mindfulness would increase empathy. But it didn’t. However, in further analyses, they found that, while mindfulness increased cognitive empathy in non-narcissists, it actually reduced the cognitive empathy of narcissists, the very individuals who need it most!
The mindfulness exercise may have "ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self aggrandizing thoughts, at the expense of focusing on the mental states of others.”
An explanation the researchers gave for this unexpected result was that the mindfulness exercise, which encouraged participants not to judge their thoughts, may have "ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self aggrandizing thoughts, at the expense of focusing on the mental states of others.” This study did not teach individuals specifically to take another person’s perspective and it may be that mindfulness raises compassion only when it explicitly teaches people to be compassionate.
You may wonder whether a five-minute mindfulness exercise is enough to increase empathy especially in narcissists. Some previous research has found that it is effective in improving scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test, which assesses cognitive empathy. Nevertheless, future research should look at longer mindfulness interventions and, perhaps interventions that specifically teach compassion.
Meditation May Have Unexpected Negative Effects
The research on meditation rarely talks about “challenging experiences” that meditators may face. This paper from Brown University interviewed 100 meditators and meditation teachers from the Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan traditions. All meditators reported some challenging experiences , including hypersensitivity to light and sound, insomnia or involuntary body movements, or challenging emotional experiences including fear, anxiety, panic, or a loss of emotions altogether. And these experiences lasted from a few days to months to more than a decade! This study also found that these experiences were not related to pre-existing psychiatric or trauma history or to practising incorrectly.
The researchers want to remove the stigma that meditators may feel when they experience a problem.
What the researchers hope to achieve with this paper is to generate research on the challenging effects of meditation. And to remove the stigma that meditators may feel when they experience a problem.
Ridderinkhof, A., de Bruin, E. I., Brummelman, E., & Bögels, S. M. (2017). Does mindfulness meditation increase empathy? An experiment. Self and Identity, 16:3, 251-269, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2016.1269667
Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. A., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K., & Britton, W. B. (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12: e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239