Some critical thoughts on mindfulness?

The scientific study of meditation has produced 7,000 peer reviewed studies, but our understanding is still described as preliminary. Has the time come for a more critical approach to mindfulness?

Reliable measurement is a central tenet of experimental psychology, but deciding what to measure is a much more complex question.
Accurate measurement is crucial to science, but deciding what to measure is a challenging question in mindfulness research

So broad has the field of mindfulness become that we find conflicting, coexisting and complementary perspectives among practices. Traditional mindfulness methods include explicitly and implicitly nondual understandings that appear abstract (incommensurable) to positivist scientific enquiry. However, the exponential growth in the modern forms of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. Also, (d) that reductive investigations can offer understandings of complex human behaviours and cognitive states and (e) experiments produce events which can be reliably measured. In many respects, the positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate traditional and medicalised mindfulness and meditation is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Wilhelm_Wundt.jpg
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt – Founder of experimental psychology

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was the architect of experimental psychology. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that nuanced human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. After all, we humans are replete with agency, we can take for or against an idea with little rational justification. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individualised behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which is supported by unique environmental conditions? Consider that meditation is the mediation of consciousness, of which psychology only has a rudimentary understanding. One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) the reliable measurement of at least two fixed points to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ when dealing with universal human consciousness is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot identify their own fixed points to generate data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is highly variable.1

Reviews of the scientific literature have indicated that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. There are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is observed by and integrates with the scientific method. But the uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been continually proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. Today, contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of precisely what mindfulness might be or how interventions can meditate it. The pressing questions asked by critical mindfulness are, how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies an authoritative description at the theoretical and operational level? And how can psychology develop a more rigorous approach to testing the findings and claims produced by 7,000 published meditation studies over the last eight decades?

The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.

Rupert Gethin 4


1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.

3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.

4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.


Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.


Can mindfulness research be improved?

Growing challenges to the science of mindfulness is forcing a rethink in how we measure and understand the benefits of meditation.

Can mindfulness research be improved?
Improving our understanding of mindfulness

Authors: Grossenbacher, P. G., & Quaglia, J. T

Year: 2017

Title: Contemplative cognition: A more integrative framework for advancing mindfulness and meditation research

Summary: The growing tide of criticism directed against the science of mindfulness, from within the scientific community, is driving a sense that something has to change. Just what that something is, remains unclear.  In this paper from 2017, Grossenbacher and Quaglia proposed a new approach for understanding mindfulness and meditation as a useful first step in improving reliability in contemplative science generally.

A consensus is emerging that long-standing and evidenced problems in mindfulness research are linked to both theoretical and methodological issues, put simply what mindfulness is and how it can be understood. The authors argue that establishing an integrative theoretical framework will offer meditation scientists the tools to deliver more stable and comparable findings. Thus supporting the reliability of individual experiments and presenting greater opportunities for replication. It’s contended that by utilising the psychological constructs of attention, intention and awareness a contemplative cognitive framework (CCF) can be constructed, which would deliver an overarching view of the impact of meditation practice. Grossenbacher and Quaglia state that the CCF could

  • overcome discrepancies in mindfulness research (a very bold claim)
  • consider motivational and contextual aspects of meditation practice
  • create greater opportunities for epistemological plurality
  • deliver a common operational language, benefitting meditation and mindfulness research in general

man sitting

Although falling short of a systematic review, the authors offered some welcome clarity in understanding the current limitations in this field. In addition, their discussion of the pressing need to consider the effect of motivation and context in meditation practice is particularly timely. The paper provides an exposition of attention and intention in a clear and informed manner. And I’d recommend this study to anyone wanting to know more about metacognition and meditation practice.

However one of the problems with meditation research, in general, is the failure to study traditional forms of meditation with a clear understanding of their ontologies and epistemologies. Any contemporary methods which claim a theoretical relationship with traditional practices, must include a credible understanding of what the original practices are. Only then can the modern translated meditation methods be scientifically framed, by understanding which operational components have been added or taken away. Without a clear awareness of what the original practice was, trying to reverse engineer a theoretical framework would appear to be a challenging process. Until we have a reliable phenomenological understanding of the traits practitioners cultivate in traditional mindfulness, a contemporary theoretical framework necessitates a degree of guesswork, even with the support of neural correlates.

The CCF may prove to offer a useful toolkit for new forms of meditation, unrelated to and independent from traditional methods. In could allow for hypotheses to be created and tested. But without greater certainty of the operational components of traditional practices, discussions regarding the metacognition of Buddhist or Buddhist inspired meditation is perhaps premature.

Grossenbacher, P. G., & Quaglia, J. T. (2017). Contemplative cognition: A more integrative framework for advancing mindfulness and meditation research. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1580-1593.

Better mental health through meditation?

adult air beautiful beauty
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on

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.


Meditation can change the size of your brain

The brain is plastic, to what extend does it undergo structural changes during meditation?


Authors: Kieran C.R. Fox, Savannah Nijeboer, Matthew L. Dixon, James L. Floman,
Melissa Ellamil, Samuel P. Rumak, Peter Sedlmeier, Kalina Christoff

Year: 2014

Title: Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners

Summary: Like almost every contemplative scientist will point out, our understanding of what meditation can do for us in its infancy. However, this investigation sets out the progress made in understanding meditation related to structural changes in the brain. The researcher identified 21 studies that imaged the brains of meditators, looking for structural changes. Although most of the research was cross-sectional in nature some ‘before and after’ examples are included.

This project reviewed research that used any of the six leading measures of structural changes in the brain (volumetry, concentration, thickness, fractional anisotropy (FA), diffusivity (axial and radial) and gyrification). The selected papers were qualitatively reviewed and also subject to an anatomical likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis. Qualitative results highlighted nine brain areas that might have undergone structural alteration as a result of meditation practice. Seven areas of grey matter: anterior/mid-cingulate cortex, fusiform gyrus, hippocampus, inferior temporal gyrus, insular cortex, rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, somatomotor cortices and two white matter pathways: corpus callosum, superior longitudinal fasciculus.

Although Lazer et al. made efforts to link the results of morphometric neuroimaging to a range of functional studies there are a number of problems in this approach. There is little structure in how meditators and meditation methods are grouped together,  both in creating the meta-analysis and explanations for alterations in brain structures. This in part reflects the limitations of the 21 neuroimaging studies used, it is also linked to the widely documented problems in the theoretical frameworks used by contemplative science. For example, common features are looked for in diverse experiments using different forms of meditation, both secular and spiritual. Although the participants from the experimental groups cited in the studies had all meditated, they often differ significantly in the methods they use, frequency and duration of practice and time spent in intensive meditation retreat.

Despite the limitations, which are in large part symptomatic of meditation research in general, this remains an influential study fo0r both cognitive psychology and neuroscience.


Spiritual based meditation may help preserve cognitive function

Whilst intensive meditation practice may improve cognitive function, sustained daily practice may help maintain it.


Authors: Anthony P. Zanesco, Brandon G. King, Katherine A. MacLean, Clifford D. Saron

Year: 2018

Title: Cognitive Ageing and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training

Summary: Can meditation lead to improvements in cognitive abilities such as attention? Meditation research generally suffers from a shortage of longitudinal studies, therefore this seven-year project should be applauded. Building on their earlier work which examined the effects of a three-month meditation retreat on cognition. This investigation assessed the benefits of sustained practice in the following years. The findings appeared to demonstrate that age-related decline in reaction time was negatively correlated with the continuation of meditation practice (regular practice leading to slower decline), following the intensive three-month retreat. The research broadly concludes that the cognitive benefits achieved through periods of intensive activity may receive protection against age-related decline from regular meditation practice.

In the original retreat at least two forms of meditation were undertaken, a basic mind training and a compassion/empathy based practice, both embedded in a spiritual tradition. Inevitably it is problematic to evaluate the benefits of each of the practices or their interaction effect. As an experienced meditator I should underline that by their very nature, participants willing and able to undertake retreats of three months and sustain meditation practice over several years are probably unrepresentative of meditators generally, let alone the wider population. Limitations of ecological validity are discussed in the study. There was also insufficient information provided regarding the meditation history of participants, their levels of accomplishment, the degree of their theoretical training and information regarding secondary or special practices undertaken since the retreat.


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.


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?

Methodological problems in mindfulness research

Problems in how meditation is researched are highlighted in this meta study. But the paper stops short of explaining why its lost in a ‘theoretical mist’.


Authors: Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias & Inti A. Brazil

Year: 2017 (print), 2018 (online)

Title: The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Summary: This systematic meta-review explored the effects of meditation and mindfulness on five types of pro-social behaviour (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice). The study contended that although there was evidence that compassion and empathy were mediated by meditation, the other three factors were not. Further, that compassion levels were found only to increase when a co-author of the study was the meditation teacher or when the control group was a passive (not active) waiting list. The study highlighted a number of key problems in the ongoing study of meditation, particularly the consistent application of appropriate methodologies.

However, weaknesses in the scientific investigation of meditation tend to be linked to the absence of robust theoretical frameworks. For example inconsistent definitions of mindfulness and meditation. Meta-studies in this field can reflect wider patterns but risk drawing together forms of meditation that may in effect, be quite different. The authors are correct to highlight the ‘theoretical mist’ surrounding meditation research and the failure of science to treat meditation as either a secular or spiritual practice. But despite citing architects and theorists of contemporary meditation, the authors fall short of explaining how the pseudo-spirituality of contemporary secular meditation arose or is being sustained.


How much does science know about meditation?

Scientific understanding of meditation and mindfulness

Science and meditation
Science and meditation

Blogging about a related issue at Meditation for Health prompted me to think about how much does science really know about meditation and mindfulness. Leading scientists in the field state that empirical meditation research is at a relatively early stage. But relative to what? Surely not the efforts of the scientific community, thousands of scientific studies have already been published that explored meditation and/or its presumed operationalised components. It should also be considered that there is a vast body of traditional texts available, documenting many aspects of contemplative sciences over the last two thousand years. Contemporary research should also have benefited from the millions of current practitioners, including meditation masters with great experience of practice and underlying theoretical frameworks. It is hard to imagine more auspicious conditions for the study of meditation, so why is the research struggling to make significant progress?

After I had been meditating for five years I asked a traditional meditation teacher what the goal of my particular practice was. She stripped away the esoteric imagery in which the practice was framed and explained the likely result of my efforts. In particular, she emphasized the importance of my motivation. The idea that the method alone is not the practice is central to many forms of meditation and contemplation. In fact, traditional literature from Tibetan Buddhism makes it clear that progress in a particular method may require the application of significant levels of compassion or non-attachment. It is not my suggestion that a western scientific approach cannot fully understand the processes engaged in different forms of meditation. But rather it might be time to start to think about the phenomena underpinning meditation in a more complete way, even within cognitive psychology or neuropsychology. In some traditional schools, meditators are discouraged from evaluating the progress of others. But when you meditate cheek by jowl in a community of meditators for years, you may inevitably observe differences in the effects of the same meditation practice on different people.

Whilst the capacity of practitioners (individual differences) is a known factor in the experience of meditation. An individual’s motivation is also central to the benefits of a practice. This is a paradigm for all meditators and mindful practitioners in all settings. Unless a scientist can integrate the enthusiasm, scepticism and goals of the meditator into the input part of the equation, great uncertainty regarding the output is inevitable.  In a survey of meditators and mindfulness practitioners (Morris, 2017) that included both types of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:        

Motive %
To improve my health 12
To improve my general well-being 43
For spiritual/religious reasons 22
As a lifestyle choice 6
Because of the influence of others 3
Any other reasons 14

There are reasons to suppose that the motivation of a meditator is a significant influencer on the results of a practice. The empirical approach has a great deal to offer the investigation of meditation, it can help to construct reductionist models able to identify the elements contemplative practice. But we are perhaps at a point when a fuller understanding of meditation and meditators needs to evolve.



Morris, S. (2017), An exploration of the relationship between wellbeing and meditation experience amongst meditators and mindfulness practitioners. The Open University, Milton Keynes. Unpublished

Mirror neurons – embodied cognition

Mirror neurons may have significant implications for meditators and spiritual practitioners.

Macaque monkeys were used for the first mirror neuron experiments

Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.

Year: 1992

Title: Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study

Summary: Research emitting from the University of Parma in the 1990s changed cognitive science forever. This was the place where the mirror neuron was identified. At first sight it might not appear to have a direct relevance with meditation, but mirror neurons demonstrate a characteristic of the human brain central to understanding how we interconnect with each other. Under certain conditions we are directly affected by what we see other people do. This phenomenon is not restricted to humans.

If we see others undertaking a behavior that reflects something we have done, it will fire our mirror neurons as if we were doing it. This effect is not linked to species it is about how closely observable behaviors correspond  our own motor repertoire.

Stephen Gene Morris

In the original experiment a macaque monkey demonstrated mirror neuron activity when a human experimenter undertook tasks that it had been trained to do. The implications for meditators include:

  • Firstly it is a weakening to self-other duality, humans and animals can, under relatively common conditions share action potentials in mirror neurons.
  • Secondly there is a clear relationship between what we see and how this affects our brain.  It seems plausible that if we see kind acts that we ourselves have done in the past our mirror neurons will fire as if we were administering the kindness. The same would apply for unkind acts.

I have written a paper on this experiment which can be made available on request. The original literature (linked below) is very readable but it is the first in a series of the Parma Mirror Neuron Experiments.

Perspective: Embodied cognition, neuroscience, mirror neurons