The benefits of meditation may have been seriously overhyped, a group of psychologists, neuroscientists, Buddhist scholars and mindfulness teachers warn—and the evidence to support mindfulness as a treatment certainly has been.
A new study by a multidisciplinary group of researchers at several universities calls out the "misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology" that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.
“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors write in their paper...Much of the research around meditation and mindfulness has serious flaws, the authors state. Among those flaws: using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.
“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago [said]. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University...The revelation is particularly disconcerting in light of how big of a business meditation has become. A veritable industry, the practice brings in around $1 billion annually, according to Fortune. That industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.
Major commercial players in the meditation space have noted many of the issues raised by the authors. “I agree with a lot of the points in the paper," said Sarah Romotsky, head of science communications for Headspace, which sells a meditation app and online sessions.
The lack of strong evidence around meditation is especially an issue for people who want to use meditation as a clinical tool. The National Institutes of Health in the U.S. includes an institute dedicated to complementary approaches, which cites meditation as a potential treatment for high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and pain.
Part of the reason there is so much more research now than there once was is because grants were available for young researchers in the field from sources like the Mind and Life Institute, Vago said….Yet according to one study the authors cited, the well-designed studies that have been done on meditation showed that the practice was only moderately effective, at best, for treating conditions like anxiety, depression or the unpleasantness associated with pain. "It didn’t even show that it increases well-being any more than a social group intervention. Just being in a group setting helps,” Vago said.
The authors also lay the blame for overstating the benefits of meditation on the media. “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover," Vago said. "And they're labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”
(Sheridan, "'Mindfulness' Is a Meaningless Word With Shoddy Science Behind It,” Newsweek Online, 10/11/17).