If mindfulness works, we have to be able to produce the evidence

The longer the science of mindfulness resists reforms, the greater the risks to the technology.

Buddhism and mindfulness
Making sense of mindfulness research

Leading UK economist Richard Layard has drawn further attention to the growing controversy surrounding mindfulness meditation. In his recent book Can we be happier?, Layard sends a number of uncertain messages about the role and benefits of mindfulness. The central premise contained in the Introduction is that by increasing levels of altruism, a new age of increased happiness can be established. Throughout the book, mindfulness and meditation are used as examples of technologies able to support the ‘happiness revolution’. But confusingly, Layard highlights concerns that the altruism present in traditional meditation methods, has been erased from secular forms of mindfulness. According to Layard’s hypothesis, if mindfulness decreases altruism it might reduce happiness. The same problem may be present with any self-focused form of mind training, self-compassion or CBT for example.

man wearing black crew neck top

Can we be happier? also misses the opportunity to discuss the lack of replicated data in mindfulness research. Several scientific reviews have argued that revisions to the methodologies used to study meditation are required.1 Given the status of Layard as a leading authority in the science of happiness, his failure to mention this growing problem is surprising. Leaving the book open to accusations of a lack of scientific objectivity.2 A tendency to ignore critical reviews from academics and scientists is causing increasing damage to the reputation of the contemplative sciences. If action isn’t taken by the scientific and clinical communities, there is a danger that the progress of mindfulness will be stalled further. There are three pressing issues that need to be addressed by professionals working in this field.

  • The body of research needs to be reviewed and a distinction made between reliable (fully replicated studies) and unreplicated (unreplicable) work.
  • Any systemic problems must be acknowledged and a plan of action to eliminate them agreed.
  • Robust theoretical frameworks need to be established.

“Those of us with a long experience of meditation, know how valuable a technology it is. But if we wish that meditation and mindfulness are treated as scientifically reliable, we must meet the required standards of evidence. Including a need for extensive replication.”

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.

2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/23/can-we-be-happier-richard-layard-review

Science demonstrates the benefits of altruism

Initial findings suggest that our own suffering can be reduced through altruistic acts.

A community support projects
Helping others may be the way to our own fulfilment

Authors: Wang, Y., Ge, J., Zhang, H., Wang, H., & Xie, X.

Year: 2019

Title: Altruistic behaviours relieve physical pain

Summary: There has been a trickle of studies investigating the health benefits of prosocial behaviour in recent years. And research into altruism has remained at the periphery of psychological enquiry. A search of academic databases reveals greater scientific interest in ‘self-compassion’ than ‘compassion for others’ in recent years. The paper by Wang et al. poses some problems for current thinking in psychology. That selfless acts may hold the key to reducing the experience of pain. But, in common with all experiments involving complex human behaviours, the findings of this paper need validating through replication.

As a starting point, this study built on the foundations of two pilot investigations. Its cognitive insights are underpinned by the results of brain imaging technology (fMRI). The researchers found that altruism relieved pain in both experimental and clinical settings. The clinical participants were cancer patients suffering from chronic pain. The goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that altruism could reduce physical suffering. In this regard, the results were significant. People undertaking altruistic acts did experience less pain than participants in control groups. More experienced experimental psychologists might like to comment on the methods, but they appear to be robust. We should treat such radical findings with caution of course, but also bear in mind this is not a new idea. Compassion and altruism exist in every culture; they are universal human traits.

Successful repetition of these experiments would open up new areas of research into pain management. While also signposting new understandings of the mind. For example, a link between pro-social behaviour and mental and physical wellbeing more generally. This latest study should encourage scientists and clinicians working with compassion meditation.

“If found to be reliable, these findings may put behavioural sciences on a new trajectory.”

Stephen Gene Morris

Link: www.pnas.org

Better mental health through meditation?

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Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

Authors: Kieran C.R. Fox, R. Nathan Spreng, Melissa Ellamil, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Kalina Christoff

Year: 2015

Title: The wandering brain: Meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies
of mind-wandering and related spontaneous thought processes

Summary: Thinking about the most common effects on the brain from meditation will lead you into an area that psychologists call spontaneous thoughts. These are defined as thoughts and ideas that seem to come out of nowhere and don’t necessarily have any obvious relationship to a specific task you may be undertaking. Meditation scientists have long considered that the most popular forms of secular meditation lower activity in regions of the brain known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is strongly connected with, self-reflection, thoughts about relationships with others, memories of the past and our ability to project into the future. It is also the home to our mind wandering or drifting.

Mind wandering can increase under certain conditions and has been linked to a number of long term mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Many forms of meditation reduce activity in the parts of the DMN known to support spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering. This can be a great help to people that have problems concentrating or are troubled by negative or challenging thoughts. The research by Fox and colleagues undertook a review of 24 functional neuroimaging studies looking into mind wandering/spontaneous thought. Results confirmed that well-established centres in the DMN (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, medial temporal lobe, and bilateral inferior parietal lobule) were associated with mind wandering. However, it was evident that a number of other brain regions were also engaged. The significance of the study was that spontaneous thought cannot be regarded as universally linked to a limited number of centres in the DMN. A range of regions in different networks appears to be instrumental to spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

The implication for meditation practitioners and researchers is that the apparent act of suppression or restriction of activity in the DMN cannot be seen in a narrow context and may have a broader implication for a number of interrelated processes.

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com

Deepening crisis in meditation research

Is contemporary mindfulness a meditation practice or something different?


Two leading researchers from contemplative science respond to a critical study of meditation and mindfulness research.

Authors: Richard J. Davidson and Cortland J. Dahl

Year: 2018

Title: Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation

Summary: The article begins by applauding the critique of Van Dam et al. This is only to be expected, published meditation and mindfulness research often falls short of the methodological standards normally required of journal articles in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The authors address the five points raised by the original paper in a very linear fashion, not appearing to engage with the underlying issues. The same issues that have dogged meditation research since the launch of MBSR. However to summarize the five rebuttals contained in the paper:

1 – The criticisms of meditation research reflect weakness in psychological research more generally.

2 – Contemplative practices are varied and scientific enquiry is only able to understand a few limited forms.

3 – Mindfulness and contemplative practices were not originally therapeutic in nature

4 – Research has failed to understand meditation in a relevant context.

5 – Mobile technology may be able to resolve some of the methodological issues.

Link: http://journals.sagepub.com

Author’s Critique: It is important to note that Davidson and Dahl are leaders in this field, but if they permit I offer some observation as an experienced meditator and trained neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist.

Psychology does not appear to understand meditation in the broadest sense, the (mis)appropriation of the term mindfulness has led contemporary meditation research into a limited field of investigation without clear definitions. For example, the reduction of meditation (or mindfulness) to method alone, existing in isolation to wider cognitive processes is hard to understand in the context of traditional meditation. And it must be acknowledged that the MBSR/MBI movement uses methods ‘congruent’ with traditional meditation.

If we strip the motivation of the meditator from the meditation rationale we change the entire cognitive setting. To use a rough analogy, I can train people to kick a football but if participant A is training just for a course credit and participant B is training to play in the World Cup final we can expect the effect of the training to be different. This doesn’t just mean that comparing traditional and contemporary meditation practices is fraught with difficulty but that the current understanding of how we research meditation needs to be refined. Traditional meditation literature spanning hundreds of years indicates that two people undertaking the same practice may not experience the same effects. Their individual motivation, their capacity to meditate, external conditions such as the availability of a reliable teacher and methods can all play a part. Psychology has the instruments to consider and account for many of the factors presumed to impact on the effect of meditation, but generally, the method alone dominates the thinking of meditation scientists.

Don’t misunderstand me, the study of MBSR and related families of mindfulness are legitimate objects of clinical enquiry and experimental study. They have however unconfirmed connections with mindfulness in its many forms as practised in spiritual traditions. Buddhism is not one unified tradition, there are different approaches to what one might call mindfulness, these extend from ‘bare attention’ through to ‘shine’ as practised in Tibetan traditions. Often shine is only engaged with after many years of stable foundational practice and if approached from the Vajrayana perspective would be embedded in a context of a nondual appreciation of human consciousness.

The ability of the meditation teacher and the degree of challenge to dualistic thinking are just two factors able to meditate the impact of a meditation method. But these and other components are generally ignored by scientific studies, even strategic reviews and meta-studies. In a traditional context, a meditation master may undertake decades of practice and study to understand meditation on theoretical and experiential levels. Therefore the capacity of the meditation teacher is an established factor in the progress of traditional meditation students but this is rarely discussed in the scientific literature. The point is that the assumption that the teaching of the meditation method is not a potential variable in any experiment is probably unscientific. The Van Dam et al. study is one of the first to suggest the role of the teacher can influence the effect of meditation training on participants.

Leaving aside traditional mindfulness methods, the reliability of the term mindfulness in relation to MBSR and other contemporary practices needs some further work. Several recent studies have highlighted a lack of consistency in the way mindfulness is understood and thus operationalised. Perhaps this is the single biggest challenge meditation research faces today. If there is a weakness in the reliability over what mindfulness is, how it is understood, applied and taught, it makes experimental replication difficult. Without methodologically sound replication the building blocks to advance meditation research can’t be put in place. This I think is the main message from the Van Dam et al. review. Consider that the scientific investigation of meditation in the west is at least 45 years old, an estimated 15,000 meditation studies have been published in that time and yet experimental work is still often described as ‘preliminary’. What is the strategy to elevate meditation research to a more reliable footing?

Conceptual and Methodological Challenges in Mindfulness and Meditation Research

How to think about the research of contemplative science


Title: Conceptual and methodological issues in research on mindfulness and meditation.

Authors: Davidson, Richard J.; Kaszniak, Alfred W.

Year: 2015

Summary: Notwithstanding over 45 years of research into meditation there are growing concerns about conceptual and methodological challenges in this field. There are both similar and different issues facing meditation and mindfulness but three particular questions this paper discusses are:

  • How can the first person experience be understood and studied in contemplative science?
  • Is there a reliable and consistent understanding of terms within meditation and mindfulness research?
  • What tools can be used to overcome conceptual and methodological challenges to gathering and interpreting data?

Perspective: Cognitive psychology, social psychology

Link: http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0039512

Loving-kindness Meditation for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Pilot Study

What is the effect of loving kindness meditation for post traumatic stress disorder


Authors: Kearney DJ, Malte CA, McManus C, Martinez ME, Felleman B, Simpson TL.

Year: 2013

Title: Loving-kindness Meditation for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Pilot Study

Summary: A trial of loving kindness meditation was undertaken with veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Participants were given 12 weeks training in loving-kindness meditation and measured for PTSD, depression, self-compassion, and mindfulness at different stages. The effects of this pilot demonstrated a range of benefits for participants from the meditation and concluded that the practice was both “safe” and “acceptable”. A pilot study but really strong participant attendance (74% involved in 9 to 12 classes) and fascinating results:

  • self-compassion increased with large effect
  • mindfulness increased with medium to large effect
  • PSTD symptoms subject to a large effect at 3-month follow-up (d = -0.89)
  • depression  subject to a medium effect at 3 months

Perspective: Health psychology, positive psychology, clinical psychology

Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23893519