Meditation practices linked to altered states of consciousness

Recent research has revealed that altered states of consciousness are much more common than previously thought among those who practice meditation and mindfulness. While many people report positive or even transformational results, a significant minority experience negative effects that can range from moderate to severe. The results were published in the journal mindfulness.

The popularity of meditation, mindfulness, yoga and similar practices has increased due to their potential health benefits. However, the experiences and effects of these practices, including the altered states of consciousness they can induce, remain underexplored. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital sought to study the frequency of these altered states and their impact on well-being, given the increasing number of people engaging in these practices.

To achieve this, they developed a detailed questionnaire in collaboration with a team of experts in psychiatry, neuroscience, meditation and survey design. The survey was designed to capture the diversity of experiences associated with these practices and their impact on well-being.

The study included 3,135 adults from the United States and the United Kingdom. Participants were recruited through online platforms including Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and Qualtrics, a commercial survey panel. An additional group was selected from subscribers to a popular rationalist blog. This mixed methods approach ensured a large and diverse sample, spanning diverse demographic contexts.

The questionnaire was designed to obtain detailed information about participants’ experiences with altered states of consciousness. The researchers included questions about specific phenomena such as derealization (a feeling of detachment from one’s surroundings), unitive experiences (a feeling of oneness or “oneness”), ecstatic thrills, vivid perceptions, changes in perceived size, sensations of body heat or electricity. , out-of-body experiences and the perception of non-physical lights.

The questionnaire also included questions about the frequency, nature and perceived impact of these experiences on their well-being. Participants were encouraged to provide detailed descriptions of their experiences and subsequent effects on their mental and physical health.

To ensure the accuracy and relevance of the questions, the questionnaire was subjected to several rounds of pre-testing and refinement. This process involved feedback from the research team, graduate students, and a sample of MTurk workers not included in the final study. This iterative approach helped researchers refine the investigation to effectively capture the nuances of altered states of consciousness.

One of the most striking findings was that 45% of participants reported experiencing non-drug-induced altered states of consciousness at least once in their lives. This prevalence is significantly higher than the estimated 5-15% of the population who engage in mindfulness practices, suggesting that these experiences are more common than previously thought.

The study revealed a wide range of altered states of consciousness among participants. The most commonly reported experiences included:

  • Derealization: 17% of participants reported feeling detached from their environment.
  • Unifying experiences: 15% felt a sense of togetherness or “togetherness.”
  • Ecstatic thrills: 15% experienced intense feelings of pleasure.
  • Vivid perceptions: 11% noted increased or heightened sensory perceptions.
  • Changes in perceived size: 10% experienced alterations in body perception.
  • Body heat or electricity: 9% reported sensations of heat or electric currents.
  • Out-of-body experiences: 8% perceived themselves as being outside their physical body.
  • Perception of non-physical lights: 5% saw lights that were not physically present.

Participants reported a mix of positive and negative outcomes following their experiences of altered states of consciousness. Although many people described these experiences as rewarding or even transformational, a significant minority faced significant challenges. Specifically:

  • Positive results: Many participants noted an improvement in their mental and physical well-being, an increased sense of connection, and a greater sense of peace and clarity.
  • Negative results: About 13% of participants reported moderate or greater suffering following their experiences. This suffering included feelings of misery, sadness, and existential discomfort. Alarmingly, 1.1% of participants described their suffering as life-threatening.

“With more and more people practicing mindfulness, meditation, and other contemplative and mind-body practices, we reasoned that altered states and their effects might be common among the general population,” said lead author Matthew D. Sacchet, director of Meditation Research. Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “We conducted a series of international surveys to investigate and indeed found that such experiences were widespread. »

“Altered states were most often followed by positive, and sometimes even transformational, effects on well-being,” Sacchet added. “That said, negative effects on well-being have also been reported in some cases, with a small subset of individuals reporting significant suffering.”

Despite the significant prevalence of negative experiences, researchers found that 63% of those who suffered did not seek help. Of those who sought help, the sources varied:

  • General health care providers: 15% sought help from general healthcare professionals.
  • Family and friends: 13% turned to their personal support networks.
  • Experts in meditation or spiritual practices: 12% consulted specialists in the field.
  • Specialized health care providers: 8% sought help from mental health professionals.

The study also highlighted a lack of awareness of the potential risks associated with altered states of consciousness. Only 47% of all respondents had heard of the risks before completing the survey. Among those who experienced suffering, 29% were not yet aware of these risks before participating in the study.

“Rather than being extremely unusual and rare, our study revealed that altered states of consciousness are a common variant of normal human experience,” Sacchet said. “However, we found that those who experience negative outcomes related to these altered states often do not seek help and that clinicians are ill-prepared to recognize or support these types of experiences.”

“This has contributed to what could be considered a public health problem, in that a certain proportion of people have difficulty integrating their experiences of altered states into their existing conceptions of self and reality.”

The researchers acknowledged several limitations to their study. Reliance on self-reported data introduces potential bias, as participants may not accurately remember or interpret their experiences. Additionally, the sample, while diverse, was limited to adults in the United States and United Kingdom, which may not fully represent global experiences.

Sacchet emphasized the need for further study to identify individual traits related to the experience of altered states of consciousness and the potential suffering that can accompany these states. He also emphasized the need to integrate these research findings into patient care practices.

“We should not dismiss meditation and other practices as inherently dangerous, but rather we need to better understand and support meditators to fully realize the potential of these practices,” he said. “As with psychotherapy, pharmacology, and other therapeutic tools, it is important that we learn how to better implement and support people as they engage in these powerful practices. »

Sacchet added that “ancient meditation manuals from wisdom traditions can be helpful in classifying and understanding altered states of consciousness. They can provide advice on how to better manage altered states when they may be difficult. We clearly need more research to further explore and understand this possibility.

“A clinical program on altered states of consciousness should be developed to better support clinicians who care for patients suffering from suffering related to these types of experiences,” added Sacchet. “Additionally, those teaching meditation practices should ensure that participants are aware of potential risks. Together, these types of safeguards will help ensure that these very promising and powerful practices are taught and experienced safely.

The study, “Altered states of consciousness are widespread and insufficiently managed clinically: a population survey,” was authored by Malcolm J. Wright, Julieta Galante, Jessica S. Corneille, Andrea Grabovac, Daniel M. Ingram and Matthew D. Sacchet.

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Gn Health

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