Our Obsession With Mindfulness Is Based On Limited Scientific Evidence

Many of the studies purporting to prove the benefits of "mindfulness" suffer from significant conceptual and methodological problems.

Mindfulness practices are promoted at major corporations like Google, offered as psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the UK, taught to about 6,000 school children in London, and widely studied across sub-disciplines of psychological science. And yet there’s still not even a consistent scientific definition of “mindfulness.”

It gets worse. A paper published on Oct. 10 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science argues that mindfulness research to date has been wrought by significant conceptual and methodological problems. For all the excitement about mindfulness meditation in contemporary culture, evidence of its benefits is limited. The field, the scientists who authored the paper say, needs a more systematic and rigorous approach.

Right now, mindfulness cultivation programs rely on poor scientific proof that compounds cultural confusion. As the authors note:

As mindfulness has increasingly pervaded every aspect of contemporary society, so have misunderstandings about what it is, whom it helps, and how it affects the mind and brain. At a practical level, the misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology can potentially lead to people being harmed, cheated, disappointed, and disaffected.

What are we talking about?

The solution begins with better definitions, according to the academics.

They themselves don’t give a single definition, though they reference certain elements of the Buddhist tradition as well as the formulation of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of Zen Buddhism and a doctor who famously integrated contemplative practices into American modern medicine.

“Mindfulness” originated as a Buddhist term, associated with a kind of meditation focused on the breath, meant to cultivate attentiveness and awareness in order to perceive ordinary reality and pierce illusions. It refers to both a practice for taming the mind, and the resultant mental state. As the scientists criticizing mindfulness research note, Buddhist scholars say that mindfulness involves “attention, awareness, memory, retention, and discernment.”

The Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Henepola Gunaretana explains it with an analogy in his book, Mindfulness in Plain English. The mind is like a wild elephant, mindfulness is like a rope, and breath is the post to which that rope is tethered. Meditation focusing on the breath is used to train the mind to stop running wildHe writes: “The tamed elephant who emerges from the process is a well-trained, concentrated mind that can then be used for the exceedingly tough job of piercing the layers of illusion that obscure reality.”

In 1979, Kabat-Zinn created an eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The program worked for many, and the doctor followed up with the popular book Full Catastrophe Living in 1990. In it, he explains that mindfulness isn’t a rigid, singular construct but generally involves paying attention in a specific, sustained, nonjudgmental way.

The spread of mindfulness into corporate America

Since that introduction, Kabat-Zinn’s methods have been widely publicized and adopted and led to an explosion of mindfulness research to treat a slew of physical, mental, and societal ailments. Corporations, too, have been quick to embrace meditation programs, which are relatively cheap as they involve little to no equipment—just people sitting with their breath—hoping to keep employees calm, collected, and productive in a competitive and hectic world.

As a result, an industry has sprung up to service companies who encourage mindfulness. Take, for example, ART Mindfulness Programs in Silicon Valley, which began offering “Heart at Work” in 1997, teaching employees meditation, yoga, and reflection. According to the ART website, the program promotes work/life balance and has been used by Compaq, Xerox, and Hewlett-Packard, among others. It promises employers the following benefits from employee mindfulness training; “higher productivity, improved quality, extended cooperation and teamwork, lower medical costs, decreased absenteeism and increased morale.”

Naturally, that’s attractive to corporations, and some have even begun to hire executives in charge of ensuring a mindful corporate culture. Andy Lee is the Chief Mindfulness Officer at the insurer Aetna, for example, which offers all employees mindfulness programs.

The problem though, is in the scientific studies purporting to back mindfulness up, there’s no clear sense of what is actually being studied: is it empathetic attention, presence in the moment, awareness, or all of those? “Exactly what mental states, processes, and functions are being taught, practiced, and investigated,” the paper asks.

The lack of uniformity or standards hampers scientific progress, critics argue. Two different studies on mindfulness might actually be studying two different aspects of an already-abstract concept. To start standardizing mindfulness work for comparative purposes, researchers will have to be very nuanced about their definitions, distinguishing between the many mental and physical states and behaviors they’re testing and seeing.

Another complaint about the current research is that there’s no agreement about how to define a “novice” or an “adept” practitioner. There’s also no rule about what mindfulness meditation involves—is there a particular way to practice or will any variation do?

Everyone is using the same words to describe vastly different facts, different sets of experiences, and even different practices. This leads to irrelevant comparisons between incomparable practitioners and activities and makes it hard to plan meaningful studies and to build on existing knowledge.

The good news

Mindfulness is not only difficult to define, but also to measure. Its manifestations are subtle, varied, and not necessarily directly attributable in a quantifiable, scientific way. That doesn’t mean meditation doesn’t work, just that proving it scientifically is difficult.

There are, however, some reliable studies that begin to prove the science behind mindfulness meditation. The authors of the recent review paper point to studies where magnetic resonance imaging has shown changes in the brains of meditation practitioners, for example. With more standardization of mindfulness research, the scientists believe, it will be possible to confirm the benefits of mindfulness in other contexts as well.

So what should you do until science catches up with cultural excitement? Don’t drop your mindfulness meditation practice if you like it. Traditionally, the point of mindfulness training wasn’t to perform medical miracles or make people productive but to develop internal discernment, to better see what is, rather that what the practitioner wishes was true. Scientists and Buddhist sages alike would caution wariness of exaggerated claims about its benefits and outsized expectations for great results. If you’re going to do it, do it, without illusions.