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Mindfulness: More Rigor, Less Hype

Woman practicing meditation outside

Svetlana Braun/Thinkstock

A panel of experts calls for more consistent scientific examination of mindfulness.

A growing number of hospitals, corporations and schools are offering mindfulness programs. One program might be touted to help improve focus and attention in the workplace, for example, while another is supposed to reduce pain and anxiety for patients undergoing cancer treatment. As this type of use for mindfulness practice becomes more widespread, a group of experts called into question how rigorous some of the scientific evidence is, in supporting its use for mental and physical wellness. In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers from Brown University and their colleagues from a variety of institutions around the world said the point was not to put down mindfulness research and practice, but to ensure it follows appropriate methodology.

Upon review, many intervention studies, they found, have inactive or no control groups. The researchers noted that the field also struggles with consistency in terms of measurement. For example, if a study uses the term “mindfulness,” which type was involved, and what kinds of directions were given to participants? “Without specific, well-defined terms to describe not only practices but also their effects, studies of interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction cannot provide valid and comparable measurements to produce reliable evidence,” the researchers wrote.

“We are sometimes overselling the benefits of mindfulness to pretty much any person who has any condition, without much caution, nuance or condition-specific modifications, instructor training criteria, and basic science around mechanism of action,” wrote study co-author Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Equally worrisome, he added, “The possibility of unsafe or adverse effects has been largely ignored.”

The study was clear that the authors think mindfulness and meditation can absolutely be helpful practices. “Sometimes, truly promising fields of endeavor get outstripped by efforts to harvest them before they’re really ripe,” wrote co-author David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. “Then workers there must step back, pause to take stock, and get a better plan before moving onward.” They want to see accurate science, rather than hype, and make sure consumers—whether they are in a school, hospital or office—receive safe, effective mindfulness treatments.

About the Author

Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle.

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