Altered states of consciousness are common during meditation, research shows

Yoga, mindfulness, meditation, breathwork and other practices are gaining popularity for their potential to improve health and well-being. The effects of these practices are usually positive and sometimes transformative, but they are known to sometimes be associated with challenging altered states of consciousness.

New research by a team that includes researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, a founding member of the Mass General Brigham health care system, reveals that altered states of consciousness associated with meditation practice are much more common than expected.

Although many people reported positive results, sometimes even considered transformative, for a substantial minority the experiences were negative. The results are published in the journal Mindfulness.

As more and more people engage in mindfulness, meditation, and other contemplative and mind-body practices, we thought that altered states and their effects might be common among the general population. We conducted a series of international studies to investigate this and found that such experiences were widespread.”

Matthew D. Sacchet, PhD, senior author, director of the Meditation Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

“Changed states were usually followed by positive and sometimes even transformative effects on well-being,” Sacchet adds. “Adverse effects on well-being were also reported in some cases, with a small subset of individuals reporting substantial distress.”

For the study, a panel of experts in the fields of psychiatry, neuroscience, meditation and survey design developed a questionnaire about the experience of altered states of consciousness.

Of the 3,135 adults in the US and Britain who completed the online questionnaire, 45% reported experiencing non-pharmacologically induced altered states of consciousness at least once in their lives.

This is much more than expected from the 5% (US) to 15% (UK) of this population estimated to have practiced mindfulness.

The experiences include derealization (the feeling of being detached from your environment), unifying experiences (a sense of oneness or ‘oneness’), ecstatic sensations, vivid perceptions, changes in perceived size, body heat or electricity, out-of-body experiences and perception of not -physical light.

Respondents reported a mix of positive and negative well-being after altered states, with 13% claiming moderate or greater suffering and 1.1% reporting life-threatening suffering. Of those who experienced suffering, 63% did not seek help.

“Rather than being extremely uncommon and rare, our study found that altered states of consciousness are a common variant of the normal human experience,” Sacchet said. “However, we have found that those who experience negative consequences associated with 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. problem because a certain proportion of people have difficulty integrating their experiences of altered states into their existing views of themselves and reality.

Sacchet noted that additional studies are needed to identify individual characteristics associated with experiencing altered states of consciousness, and with possible suffering associated with them. He also emphasized the importance of applying this research to patient care.

“We should not dismiss meditation and other practices as inherently dangerous, but 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 best implement and support people as they engage in these powerful practices.”

He added that “ancient meditation manuals from the wisdom traditions can be useful for classifying and understanding altered states of consciousness. They can provide guidance on how to better cope with altered states when they are difficult. We clearly need more research to further study and understand states of consciousness.” this possibility.”

“A clinical curriculum on altered states of consciousness should be developed to better support clinicians caring for patients experiencing suffering associated with these types of experiences,” Sacchet added.

“Those teaching meditation practices should also ensure that participants are aware of potential risks,” he said. “Together, these types of safeguards will ensure that these promising and powerful practices are taught and experienced safely.”


Massachusetts General Hospital

Magazine reference:

Wright, M.J., et al. (2024) Altered states of consciousness are common and clinically undersupported: a population-based study. Mindfulness.