The crisis in mindfulness research: have we been asking the wrong questions?

A review of mindfulness research in New Scientist highlighted long standing scientific problems; is it time for a new approach?

The crisis in mindfulness research: have we been asking the wrong questions?

How does science understand meditation

Writing in New Scientist on June 5th Jo Marchant summarised the state of mindfulness research and practice. The investigation added some much-needed balance to the overview of medicalised mindfulness. The article confirmed the enduring presence of uncertainties in theoretical understandings and systemic methodological weaknesses. A discussion of the potentially harmful effects of meditation was especially welcome; most experienced meditation teachers know that practices can lead to beneficial or detrimental outcomes in practitioners.

However, the absence of greater historical insights left us with a snapshot rather than an overview of the current state of our scientific knowledge. For example, scientists have been criticising meditation experiments since the 1970s, but the weaknesses identified over 40 years ago can still be seen in contemporary research. The scientific study of meditation can be traced back at least 80 years; the first decades were relatively free of scientific uncertainty. By identifying the beginning of hesitancy in meditation research, we can better understand the current crisis in the science of mindfulness. Since 1975, an estimated 7,000 scientific papers investigating meditation have been published. The vast majority of this work has focussed on mindfulness, so should we be worried that we still don’t have a reliable scientific definition of it?

The evidence suggests that we (meditation scientists) have been trying to establish mindfulness’s psychological and clinical potential ahead of a stable understanding of what it is. We know from several strategic reviews that multiple ways of understanding mindfulness exist in the scientific literature. While each mindfulness experiment can offer us some new insights, findings are rarely confirmed through replication? When taking the long view of meditation research, medicalised mindfulness manifests within visible patterns of scientific progress. In its origins, medicalised meditation reflects a confluence between positivist and belief based knowledge systems. The current theoretical uncertainty in mindfulness research can be traced back to this convergence. If mindfulness has been developed as a bridge between spiritual and scientific understandings, do we have adequate ways of making sense of meditation as a human experience? The lack of stable definitions and replication suggests there are still significant gaps in our knowledge. The most pressing unanswered questions remain the most important, what is medicalised mindfulness, and how can we understand it?

Three limitations in our understanding of meditation and how to fix them

Scientists are challenging claims being made for the benefits of mindfulness. A project to fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge is an urgent priority.

Limitations in the understanding of meditation and mindfulness
Lack of understanding is limiting the study of meditation

Scientists studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation are still coming to terms with  a systematic review entitled ‘Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.1 The criticisms made in that study pose questions for the use of meditation in contemporary secular settings. This crisis of confidence is not linked to a lack of clinical potential; there are preliminary indications of meditation’s curative effects. The problems rest in the widespread absence of replicated evidence for many of the claims made for meditation technologies. The overview now emerging from the scientific study of meditation is the lack of a ‘big picture’. Psychological science has studied the impact of meditation extensively over the last seventy years, but further progress appears limited by three intractable problems.

The long term sustainability of clinical meditation is threatened by an inability to reflect its successes and failures in equal measure. While it is not uncommon to find pilot studies with small numbers of participants hyped in the media, established theoretical and methodological problems receive modest scholarly or scientific interest. This is not a minor nor recent problem; issues of scientific reliability have stalked meditation research since the middle decades of the twentieth century.

man sitting on rock in front of water fountain

Reviews of published meditation research frequently cite flaws in the methodologies used. For example, many studies find an effect; that when people meditate some measurable change takes place. However, this effect is often established in isolation without any control group. Or on many occasions, the control is a ‘waiting list’ of participants who receive no appropriate intervention or placebo, meaning all the experiment can show is that in one instance the meditation appeared to have a more substantial effect than nothing. As any neuroscientist or neuropsychologist can tell you, a repeated novel activity of almost any kind can lead to an effect, and if continued for long enough new brain function and structure will be observed.

But the failure to establish strong scientific evidence cannot be only put down to an absence of scientific introspection and methodological flaws. The lack of a coherent theoretical framework presents the biggest obstacle to meditation research. Put simply, despite thousands of published papers over recent decades; we still can’t quite settle on definitions of what secular meditations are and how they should work. Many meditation studies reference religious traditions alongside scientific papers with little explanation of how positivism and spirituality can share a common world view. Peer-reviewed studies which contain limitations continue to be cited in recent work, their influence extending well beyond experimental environments.

Scientists working in this field are likely to be familiar with these three areas of concern (lack of reflexivity, methodological and theoretical weaknesses). But elevating the standard of published research remains a challenge. The Van Dam et al. study makes several recommendations, which if adopted, could improve matters, but the critical challenges haven’t been addressed; we lack authoritative accounts of what meditation and mindfulness are. This overarching question is directly linked to the gaps in our knowledge of how meditation relocated to science, what processes were lost and gained. A more rigorous epistemological and ontological understanding of the science of meditation may be our best hope to deliver the stable conceptual foundations urgently needed in the contemplative sciences.


1 Van Dam, N. T., Van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on psychological science, 13(1), 36-61.