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Have We Reached Peak Mindfulness?

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Mindfulness is in the thoughts of many people lately, including scientists. Small studies have shown promising results for the set of practices that include stillness, focused attention, and relaxation. Those early studies have led to an exponential rise in scientific and media attention—but has the excitement for mindfulness reached its peak?

A visualization of the rising hype for mindfulness (source: Van Dam et al., 2017)

Two recent papers have splashed some cold water on the hot mindfulness industry (and it is an industry, with many commercial entities selling it as an app or a service). Here’s a quick summary:

  • A critical evaluation of mindfulness and meditation research, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, brings up the concerns of 15 psychologists who believe that poor methodology and misinformation have plagued mindfulness research. They outline recommendations for better research, such as better defining what mindfulness even is, more rigorous methodology, studying potential adverse effects, and involving brain imaging.
  • Another study, just published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, looked at mindfulness in teens. It did use some rigorous methodology, but the results were disappointing: a mindfulness program made no difference in outcomes like anxiety, depression, wellbeing, or even a measure of mindfulness itself. It may just be a matter of timing; the researchers speculate that teenagers may just be too cynical to benefit from mindfulness, which they could grow out of later in life.

I’ve also addressed this before (see Be Mindful of Meditation and Yoga Hype), noting that one recent paper demonstrating the benefits of yoga and meditation contained some of the flaws mentioned in the review paper above.

This doesn’t mean that mindfulness is ineffective, or that it’s not worth trying out. It does mean that better research is needed in order to discover what effects it actually has, and who it is effective on.

This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.

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