There's so much research knocking around now documenting the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, but as this paper by Lindahl and colleagues (January 2014, Frontiers in Psychology) highlights, engaging in meditation practises can bring about psychological and physical experiences that we might not expect. For some, these experiences can be extremely pleasant, however for others, they can be unsettling at the very least and perhaps more so for those using meditation to manage mental health.
This paper brings together reports from meditators who’ve experienced this kind of thing, in particular visual hallucinations, and links them with descriptions resembling such experiences found in traditional Buddhist literature as well as neurobiological data thus looking at what the traditional texts and the experimental scientific data have to say about these psychological and physical shifts.
The authors go on to speculate that meditation, through sensory deprivation (which sounds harsh but if you think about it, we are reducing sensory input when we meditate) activates a period of enhanced neuroplasticity (brain changes) and the visual hallucinations, in their various forms are a part of that process. This period of neuroplasticity is associated with positive outcomes - including shifts in the way we perceive things and improved mood, learning, memory and attention - in a range of clinical populations including those with anxiety and depression.
Whilst I find this really fascinating, what I really love about this paper is that not only is it drawing attention to the importance of preparing practitioners for some of the lesser talked about oddities that they might experience, but by raising awareness and emphasising that these experiences can and do occur, research like this is helping to reduce the risk that they are not mistakenly diagnosed as something clinical and are seen for what they are.
It reminds us of the importance of approaching meditation in a balanced and intelligent way, not going to extremes but instead ensuring that we engage in activities that ground us so we can embark on our meditation practise without any expectations of what will or won’t occur whilst being best prepared for any challenging occurrences along the way.
You can access the full paper for free here