Do we need more balance when reporting mindfulness research?

As mindfulness heads towards another incarnation, unresolved issues linked to its scientific reliability remain unresolved.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/04/eu-bureaucrats-being-trained-meditate-help-fight-climate-crisis

On the 4th of May, the Guardian published an article describing the benefits of ‘applied mindfulness’ courses. However, many of the tropes observed in earlier mindfulness discussions were still prominent. Below is my reply to the Editor.

“I enjoyed the feature on EU officials learning to meditate published in The Guardian on the  4th of May. It’s hard to argue against any attempt to use the ‘potential of meditation to encourage lower-carbon lifestyles.’ But as a researcher documenting the scientific history of mindfulness, it would be remiss of me not to draw your attention to some problems with this article. So, if you permit, I’ll signpost some evidence that offers a more complete perspective of mindfulness than that normally seen in the UK media.

I’m a trained meditation neuroscientist, but my research changed direction in 2018  when I read a new scientific study called Mind the Hype.[1] Fifteen of the leading meditation scientists and clinicians reviewed the evidence supporting claims made for mindfulness. They found that: ‘Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.’ These claims appeared to run counter to much of the reported evidence and many of the media accounts I’d seen; I decided to take a closer look.

The published evidence (rather than the media hype) revealed that scientists such as Michael West had been warning against methodological problems in the research of medicalised meditation (of which mindfulness is part) since 1970.[2]  These warnings consistently appear in strategic reviews of meditation research. In the 1980s, Marguerite Malone and Michael Strube confirmed the presence of ‘spectacular’ claims based on limited experimental approaches.[3] The robust application of the scientific method to mindfulness experiments has continued to challenge promising but frequently unproven claims. The characterisation of criticisms of mindfulness using the trope of ‘McMindfulness’, ignores dozens, perhaps over a hundred systematic studies by credible mainstream scientists and academics.

Your article repeated claims about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy’s (MBCT) benefits. And while MBCT is based on a more reliable methodology, there are important and often undiscussed issues here. MBCT combines cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with mindfulness. Research has indicated that the clinical benefits of MBCT are comparable with CBT, leading critics to argue that removing mindfulness from MBCT does not alter its clinical effectiveness. As you mention, there is cross-party political support for mindfulness through the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) at Westminster. Therefore, it is unfortunate that the 2015 MAPPG report failed to discuss many of the evidenced limitations in the science supporting mindfulness. Further many of the protagonists in this field appear unaware of the social policy agenda linking mindfulness to economic objectives through the concept of ‘mental capital’.

To describe mindfulness as ‘Buddhist inspired’ is problematic in my opinion. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) described it as a ‘bridge’ between belief (Buddhism) and science, an improbable fusion of world views.[4] And while mindfulness is now a fragmented technology with over 30,000 studies in the academic databases, the scientific paradigm developed by Kabat-Zinn in the 1980s is present in much contemporary research.

I appreciate this is a complex area, and I have had the advantage of researching this field for many years. But New Scientist began to ask critical questions about the ‘hype’ behind mindfulness last year. So I’m sure many of your readers would be interested in a more balanced perspective on mindfulness research and practice.

Regards

Stephen Gene Morris”


[1] Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589&gt;.

[2] Michael West, ‘Meditation.’, The British Journal of Psychiatry : The Journal of Mental Science, 135.5 (1979), 457–67 <https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.135.5.457&gt;.

[3] Marguerite D. Malone and Michael J. Strube, ‘Meta-Analysis of Non-Medical Treatments for Chronic Pain’, Pain, 34.3 (1988), 231–44 <https://doi.org/10.1016/0304-3959(88)90118-2&gt;.

[4] Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skillful Means, and the Trouble with Maps’, Contemporary Buddhism, 12.1 (2011), 281–306 <https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2011.564844&gt;.

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

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