Evaluating the billion-dollar mindfulness experiment: promising but not proven

A new study may have discovered why, despite a huge scientific investment, mindfulness research has been problematic for decades.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

With the aim of bridging these two epistemologies of science and dharma, I felt impelled to point out in the early years of MBSR the obvious etymological linkage of the words medicine and meditation and articulate for medical audiences their root meanings.

Jon Kabat-Zinn1

The version of mindfulness founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 has always been problematic to validate scientifically. Over the last forty years, scientists, clinicians and other academics have been trying to understand what mindfulness is and how it works.2 My recently published study argues that attention to Kabat-Zinn’s claims about the origins of mindfulness hold an explanation for the current research crisis.3

There is (and always has been) a paradox in the scientific understanding of mindfulness. Thousands of preliminary clinical studies claim health benefits linked to its use. At the same time, strategic scientific reviews have illustrated that many of these studies cannot be regarded as scientifically reliable. And as the research interest has grown, the mindfulness paradox has become more problematic. We may have also reached the stage where mindfulness may be considered by health and social policy as too big to fail’. Mindfulness is now a global phenomenon; there are over 30,000 published papers in academic databases. And many scientists and institutions have continued to promote the use of mindfulness despite the presence of scientific uncertainty. In financial terms, the cost of meditation and mindfulness research is estimated at over $1.6 bn. The vast majority of this investment has been made since 2012.

In financial terms, the cost of meditation and mindfulness research is estimated at over $1.6 bn. The vast majority of this investment made since 2012.

Stephen Gene Morris

Based on a three-year study of the scientific literature, I contend mindfulness can only be fully understood by looking at its origins. The paradigm established by Jon Kabat-Zinn is rooted in the medicalised meditation movement founded in 1970. And in one sense follows the trajectory of the Religion of Science, a popular philosophy in the first decade of the twentieth century. Mindfulness has been built on a belief that an ontological congruence exists between religion and science. Unpacking this claim is key to resolving the costly mindfulness paradox and charting a more scientifically reliable future.

Notes:

1. Kabat-Zinn, Jon, ‘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

2. For an overview of the current issues, see: 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. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691617709589

3. Morris, Stephen,””The Rise of Medicalised Mindfulness During the 1970s and 1980s: The Attempted Convergence of Religion and Science.” Brief Encounters 6, no. 1 (2022). http://www.briefencounters-journal.co.uk/BE/article/view/296

The mindfulness concept can be saved, but a major revision is needed

The latest study of mindfulness in schools found that it ‘does not improve mental health’ and is contraindicated for some students.

Everything might have an ‘effect’, but how do we evaluate it?

On Tuesday 12th of July, the Guardian published details of a scientific study that raised important questions about the use of mindfulness in secondary schools. This article discussed a My Resilience in Adolescence (Myriad) trial of the benefits of School-based mindfulness training (SBMT), a major research effort involving 8,376 students in the 11–13 age range across different sites. The study had robust clinical methodologies, and it’s perhaps the most reliable SBMT investigation published to date. However, the Guardian headline claimed that ‘SBMT does not improve mental health’. But the original paper offers even more challenging findings:

SBMT as delivered in this trial is not indicated as a universal intervention. Moreover, it may be contraindicated for students with existing/emerging mental health symptoms.

Clinical implications:

Universal SBMT is not recommended in this format in early adolescence. Future research should explore social−emotional learning programmes adapted to the unique needs of young people.1

This is not the first scientific study of SBMT; the Guardian describes earlier research as ‘mixed’. Taken together, the earlier and current findings for the benefits of SBMT reflect an established pattern in the science of mindfulness that is frequently ignored, a tension between tentative early-stage studies and more robust scientific evidence. Demonstrating positive preliminary effects has never been a problem in the scientific engagement with meditation. In the first twenty years of mindfulness research, spectacular claims were frequently made about the benefits of meditating, but few of those preliminary findings were confirmed by large-scale randomised controlled trials (RCTs).

Since the 1980s, scientists have warned that preliminary uncontrolled, unrandomised, unreplicated mindfulness studies must be treated cautiously. And strategic reviews of mindfulness research frequently found initial claims to be unreliable on both theoretical and methodological grounds. But these evidence-based problems have had little effect on the scientific and social policy enthusiasm for mindfulness. This binary of positive preliminary studies challenged by more scientifically reliable evidence continues to this day. And traces of it can be seen in other forms of medicalised meditation. The problem illustrated by this Myriad trial of SBMT is simply the latest example of the paradoxical nature of mindfulness, an intervention frequently more promising than proven. 

The rationales underpinning many mindfulness clinical studies have provoked concerns. One of the harshest from Nicholas Van Dam and 14 co-authors who, in 2018, claimed that methodological weaknesses and unreliable reporting of initial claims might lead mindfulness consumers to be harmed.2 As a meditator and meditation scientist, nobody wants to see the success of medicalised meditation methods more that I. But there is evidence that we are in an epistemological crisis in meditation research. A state confirmed by my current project to write a scientific history of mindfulness. However, rather than a simple description, my work has identified the causes of the crisis and, thus, the possible solutions. But given the current trajectory of mindfulness research, there is little hope of significant change until the mindfulness community confronts the systemic research problem in this field present since the 1980s.

Notes

  1. Montero-Marin, Jesus, Matthew Allwood, Susan Ball, Catherine Crane, Katherine De Wilde, Verena Hinze, Benjamin Jones et al. “School-based mindfulness training in early adolescence: what works, for whom and how in the MYRIAD trial?.” Evidence-Based Mental Health (2022).
  2. Van Dam, N.T., Van Vugt, M.K., Vago, D.R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C.D., Olendzki, A., Meissner, T., Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Gorchov, J. and 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), pp.36-61

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;.

Non-judgement and mindfulness meditation; costs and opportunities

The absence of judgement from medicalised mindfulness suggests an uncoupling from traditional meditation methods. Why did this happen, and what does it mean?

Why was judgement removed from medicalised meditations

Although definitions across contemporary forms of mindfulness are varied, we usually find mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are explicitly non-judgemental. In the context of meditation technologies, we think about ‘non-judgement’ being both operationalised in the meditation practice itself and in the broader ethical context surrounding meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its medicalisation1. This absence is somewhat surprising, given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics are woven into their theoretical frameworks.

Scholars and practitioners have considered if the non-judgemental approach in MBIs has uncoupled them from traditional forms of meditation, if so what have we lost or gained in the process?2 This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough3. That understanding the ontology and epistemology of the method is an essential part of the meditation process. Although Rinpoche talked specifically about Buddhist practices, his view supports the notion that meditation, stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements, becomes different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting. However, the questions from a history of science perspective are more linked to how and why things developed this way. What does the apparent paradox (judgemental practices translated as non-judgemental), mean about the scientific context in which mindfulness was established and now resides?

“If we use these precious resources to examine things critically, we can understand both the way things appear and the way they truly are.”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche3

From a psychological perspective, the separation of meditation from its foundational judgement and ethics raises three crucial questions. Firstly, given the widespread presence of spiritual practitioners in the research and teaching of meditation, are students of MBIs getting ad hoc judgement/ethics to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with essential processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks; therefore, what are the differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is central to traditional meditation technologies, why has it been removed? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.

Psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit; it can also investigate spiritual meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on traditional forms prompts questions. If we knew the Buddhist practice(s) mindfulness was translated from, their theoretical and operational components could be established. Then by conducting comparative studies with MBIs, an understanding of what was added or subtracted might be reached. However, the scientific provenance of MBIs is shrouded in mystery; this gap in our knowledge is a probable factor in the failure to establish reliable theoretical frameworks for MBIs.4 Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported with evidence. So why and how did things turn out this way? Understanding this issue may provide the insights needed to signpost the next stage in mindfulness’s development.

References

1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skilful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306.

2 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham. From a practitioners persective see Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39.

3 Nyima Chokyi. “Why Meditation isn’t Enough.” Lion’s Roar (2019). https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/

4 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.

A history of meditation; from the temple to the laboratory

The scientific history of meditation reveals that we may be overlooking many important findings from the past.

The history of meditation and mindfulness
The history of meditation and mindfulness

A history of meditation and mindfulness

In the last century, we have seen four or five (it depends on how you categorise the research) waves of engagement between science and spiritual/meditation technologies. Careful attention to the successes and failures of each of these waves gives us important insights into the current crisis in meditation research. Understanding how the curative potential of meditation has been altered by its relocation to science should accelerate the development of more effective interventions. However, there are few reliable accounts of the scientific history of meditation from which to evaluate our progress. This short introduction highlights some of the important and often disregarded progress from past decades.

Buddhist meditation had been migrating for two and a half thousand years. From its conceptual birthplace in Northern India, Buddhism developed many schools and approaches, all loosely tied to foundational theoretical frameworks.[1] Buddhist meditation methods became transnational spiritual practices, frequently adapted to local conditions whenever they established a foothold.[2]

D. T Suzuki (image from Wikipedia)

The relocation of Buddhism from Asia to the West gained momentum in the first half of the twentieth century, bringing Buddhist knowledge and meditation to many Westerners for the first time. But as well as introducing Zen Buddhism to many in the West, academic and Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was also redrawing the boundaries between psychology and religion.[3] Suzuki’s ideas were shaped by the time he spent living and working with Paul Carus at the start of the twentieth century. Carus was an advocate of monism, a concept expressed through the Religion of Science (RoS). [4]  The RoS held that a positivist symmetry existed between elements of science and religion. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Suzuki had become increasingly influential with Western academics and opinion formers such as Alan Watts and Erich Fromm.

Fromm drew on Suzuki’s reformed, psychologised version of Zen to develop Zen psychotherapy in the late 1950s.[5] Fromm’s interest in Zen was part of a broader movement, and during the 1960s Eastern spiritual traditions became increasingly important in America and Britain. Promoted by poets, philosophers and global celebrities such as The Beatles, meditation in general and Transcendental Meditation, in particular, expressed the aspirations of a generation.[6] The growing Counter Culture became increasingly suspicious of mechanistic approaches to health and wellbeing.[7] Meditation and spiritual world views were seen by many as an antidote to the restlessness caused by an overbearing ‘technocracy’ and processes of dehumanisation.[8]

History of meditation
EEG test (image from Wikipedia)

Alongside the Carus-Zuzuki-Fromm confluence of psychology and traditional spiritual thought, there was a second, more scientific engagement with Eastern meditation traditions. Early accounts of the effects of meditation on the brain can be found in the electroencephalographic (EEG) literature from the 1930s.[9] The following decades were punctuated with several important peer reviewed papers from philosophical, psychoanalytical, physiological and psychological perspectives. A key breakthrough in the scientific understanding of the effects of meditation came with NN Das’s and Henri Gastaut’s research in 1955.[10] By studying brain wave activity alongside other physiological indicators, Das and Gastaut helped to establish the methodology that dominated meditation research for the following two decades.

EEG studies became much more commonplace during the 1960s. Researchers from several countries (France, Germany, India and Japan in particular) confirmed a correlation between the frequency and strength of alpha brain waves and meditative states. But in 1970, a study of Transcendental Meditation (TM) published in Science took the scientific and public interest in meditation to new levels.[11] Keith Wallace’s claims that alongside a range of potential health benefits, TM practitioners could access a novel state of consciousness, inspired meditation researchers for a decade. The 1970s saw a rapid growth in TM studies in experimental and applied settings. In the early 1970s, Wallace joined forces with the cardiologist and health researcher Herbert Benson. Using novel methodological approaches, Benson and Wallace provided further evidence that the practice of TM could lead to improved health and wellbeing.[12]

By 1974 Benson’s research had changed direction, he went on to describe the relaxation response (RR), a ‘grand theory’ that made sweeping claims for a relaxed cognitive state.[13] Benson aggregated operational elements from many different spiritual practices into four essential components that could deliver the relaxation response. Despite a successful book about the RR (written by Benson and Miriam Klipper), the science underpinning the hypothesis never received universal scientific acceptance.[14] By 1980 the scientific community had begun to evaluate‘progress’ made in the study of meditation. Deep-seated methodological and theoretical issues with TM research led to critical reviews from scientists such as Michael West.[15]

However, setbacks to the reputation of meditation research did not thoroughly dampen enthusiasm for the technology. Several new approaches were delivering positive findings, such as Vikram Patel’s combination of biofeedback and meditation to reduce stress.[16] At the start of 1980, there was a growing acceptance of the curative potential of Eastern non-positivist interventions, such as meditation (as well as yoga and acupuncture).[17] But a critical view of meditation research had raised questions about how psychology might best harness the curative potential of meditation.

When viewed from a history of science perspective, many of the strengths and weaknesses in contemporary meditation research are visible in previous ‘waves’. I acknowledge the Western-centric nature of this account. Some potentially important research originating outside of America and Britain, remains to be fully reviewed. But a clear conclusion from this brief summary is that if we don’t pay attention to reliable science from the past, we risk repeating the same mistakes and also missing important findings from earlier work.

(Based on a history of meditation paper prepared for the ERC BodyCapital conference October 2020).

Biblography


[1] Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition (London: Routledge, 2005).

[2] Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006).

[3] Robert Sharf, ‘The Zen of Japanese Nationalism’, History of Religions, 33.1 (1993), 1–43. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/463354

[4] Carl T. Jackson, ‘The Meeting of East and West: The Case of Paul Carus’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 29.1 (1968), 73. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2708466?seq=1

[5] Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism (New York: Open Road Media, 2013). https://philpapers.org/rec/FROPAZ

[6] Anne Harrington and John D. Dunne, ‘When Mindfulness Is Therapy’, American Psychologist, 70.7 (2015), 621–31. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/25757884/97605608.pdf?sequence=1

[7] Saks, Mike, ‘Medicine and the Counter Culture’, in Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003), pp. 113–24

[8] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. (Oakland: University of California Press, 1995).

[9] Walter, W. G., ‘Critical Review: The Technique and Application of Electro-Encephalaography’, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 1.4 (1938), 359–85. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1088109/pdf/jnpsychiatry00020-0059.pdf

[10] N Das and H Gastaut, ‘Variations in the Electrical Activity of the Brain, Heart, and Skeletal Muscles during Yogic Meditation and Trance’, Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 6 (1955), 211-219.

[11] Robert Keith Wallace, ‘Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation’, Science, 167.3926 (1970), 1751–54. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/167/3926/1751.abstract

[12] Robert Keith Wallace, Herbert Benson, and Archie Wilson, ‘A Wakeful Hypometabolic Physiologic State.’, The American Journal of Physiology, 221.3 (1971), 795–99. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajplegacy.1971.221.3.795?journalCode=ajplegacy

[13] Herbert Benson, John F. Beary, and Mark P. Carol, ‘The Relaxation Response’, Psychiatry, 37.1 (1974), 37–46. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1301437094

[14] Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper, The Relaxation Response (New York: Collins, 1976).

[15] Michael West, ‘Meditation.’, The British Journal of Psychiatry : The Journal of Mental Science (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 457–67. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/abs/meditation/BCF552D109C0184ADCF979EBAE736915

[16] C. H. Patel, ‘Yoga and Bio-Feedback in the Management of Hypertension’, The Lancet, 302.7837 (1973), 1053–55. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0140673673926603

Can mindfulness research be improved? The scientific history of meditaton

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.

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

Choose happiness! Is mind wandering unwelcome?

Choose happiness!
Does mind wandering inevitably lead to unhappiness?

 

Is mind wandering unwelcome?
Is mind wandering unwelcome?

Authors: Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T.

Year: 2010

Title: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Summary: I’ve taken a step back with this study (chronologically speaking) because it predates the Jazaieri et al. paper that I recently reviewed. According to Google Scholar, this investigation has been cited by other researchers over 1500 times. If you read any scientific study linked to mind wandering since 2010 you can expect to find Killingsworth & Gilbert referenced. Three reasons why this work is so popular, firstly it was a big study, recruiting 2250 participants. Secondly, it took an innovative approach to the use of technology, using an iPhone app to track and record mind wandering in ‘real world’ scenarios. Finally, the study made some very strong statements which with hindsight, have perhaps oversimplified mind wandering. In particular, the idea that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.

The full purpose of mind wandering is not yet understood, its activity is largely observed in the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is a collection of anatomically separate regions that are most active when we are not engaged in a specific externally focussed task, hence our ‘default state’. The research concludes that mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness and (staggeringly) even mind wandering to positive subjects doesn’t appear to improve self-reported happiness. Provided with this kind of context it’s no wonder that the idea of suppressive mind wandering approaches maintained popularity across experimental and clinical psychology. Killingsworth & Gilbert even supported their case by claiming that many religious and philosophical traditions link happiness to living in the here and now.

Buddhism and mind wandering

Many forms of meditation and mindfulness do work on training consciousness to rest in the present moment. But from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective to equate this with a conclusion that mind wandering is a cause of unhappiness is somewhat misleading. Traditional meditation is often set in a wider context, undertaken for the benefit of all beings (self and other). Any merit that is accumulated from resting in the present moment is typically dedicated to others, rooting the practice in the past present and future. The idea that a thought, rather than the reaction (attachment or aversion) to the thought is the cause of unhappiness isn’t supported by the theoretical frameworks of traditional meditation systems.

Abnormally high levels of mind wandering are likely to be clinically problematic, but even today we don’t know all the functions mind wandering might have. It’s considered to be linked to the narrative we make to understand ourselves in the wider world. There isn’t evidence that the process itself brings unhappiness, it may be that the quality of our self-generated narrative rather than mind-wandering per se might be the problem. For example, 1 in 4, 14-year-old girls in the UK demonstrate symptoms of depression, and that teenage depression is correlated with social media use. Can we say that mind wandering to social media content, rather than emotions linked to social media content is the root cause of any reported unhappiness?

Link: www.science.sciencemag.org

Brain health in middle age; the science of meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness may help to keep your brain young

man sitting on chair beside table

 

Authors: Fotuhi, M., Lubinski, B., Trullinger, M., Hausterman, N., Riloff, T., Hadadi, M., & Raji, C. A.

Year: 2016

Title: A personalized 12‐week ” Brain Fitness Program” for improving cognitive function and increasing the volume of hippocampus in elderly with mild cognitive impairment.

Summary: The idea that brain function inevitably declines as people grow older is firmly established in both clinical and cognitive branches of psychology. This particular study is one of only a handful that I have seen to suggest, that even in retirement, people can maintain and even increase both structure and function in the brain. Participants of retirement age with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) were asked to engage in a number of activities linked to brain health. They included: cognitive stimulation, Omega 3 supplements, some physical exercise, a change in diet and mindfulness meditation. Participant undertook a range of cognitive tests before the interventions and at the end of the experiment.

Results showed that 84% of participants saw an improvement in their cognitive performance. Further neuroimaging examinations revealed that a majority of a sample of the participants also demonstrated no decline or an actual increase in the volume of the hippocampus. Although this was a preliminary study with a number of methodological problems, it is suggestive that people may have a lot more control over brain structure and function than is generally assumed. This kind of ‘shotgun’ approach can support general theories but adds little to our understanding of the extent to which particular interventions (or combination of interventions) may offer benefit. It also makes the establishment of robust scientific theory a challenge, as no single theory can incorporate such a wide range of activities. For example with a new diet, can cognitive changes be attributed to the food that was no longer being eaten or the new food? Or a combination of the two? However simply to demonstrate that older adults can experience increased structure in certain brain regions is an important contribution to our understanding of the human brain.

Link: https://neurogrow.com

Better mental health through meditation?

adult air beautiful beauty
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

Can mindfulness help you to stop smoking?

Can mindfulness meditation help with smoking cessation or addiction? Stop smoking.

Meditation and smoking cessation
Meditation and smoking cessation

Authors: Maglione MA, Maher AR, Ewing B, Colaiaco B, Newberry S, Kandrack R, Shanman RM, Sorbero ME, Hempel S.

Year: 2017

Title: Efficacy of mindfulness meditation for smoking cessation: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Summary: Although there is an enduring presumption that meditation can help people with addiction, few papers have demonstrated significant effects during randomised controlled trials. This study searched five databases in order to produce a meta-study of relevant research. Ten randomised controlled trials investigating the effect of mindfulness for tobacco smoking cessation were identified. The studies had a total of 1192 participants with individual sample sizes from 27 to 412. The studies had a balance of genders (4) or more males than females (6). The average age of participants in the studies was between from 21.5 to 45.9 years and all the research was carried out in the United States of America. The meditation interventions varied from durations of 1 day to eight weeks. Five studies used only mindfulness as the intervention (monotherapy), three used a combination of mindfulness and nicotine replacement, two studies allowed the participants to augment mindfulness therapy with nicotine replacement if desired.

The meta-review found only one study could be rated as good, four were described as fair and the remaining five adjudged to be poor. The point was made that eight of the studies did not disclose if the experimental assessors were ‘blinded’ to participant intervention. Four studies failed to report cessation outcomes and only one reported an a priori power calculation. The headline finding was that mindfulness did not offer significant increases in smoking cessation compared to other interventions. The study highlighted a number of methodological weaknesses in the reported research but acknowledged the preliminary nature of understanding in this area.

Link: www.sciencedirect.com

%d bloggers like this: