What Do We Really Know About Mindfulness?

The concept of mindfulness is in the media constantly. We’ve written about it several times on the Evidence-based Living blog. Many people see meditation as a magic bullet that can reduce pain, relieve depression, and sharpen our focus.

But in fact, the evidence on meditation is flawed; researcher don’t really know how meditation effects the mind and brain. A new sweeping review published in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science takes a careful look at what we know about meditation based on the body of data in hundreds of studies.

The authors, psychology researchers from across the U.S., Australia, and the Netherlands, make the case that society’s beliefs about mindfulness as a cure-all are misguided. They found the vast majority of evidence available on mindfulness has two main flaws: There is no consistent definition for mindfulness, and researchers don’t have a consistent way to measure the results of mindfulness.

For starters, because there is not a universally-accepted definition of mindfulness, review articles that pull together data from multiple studies are often pooling mismatched data. For example, the authors ask, is using a mindfulness app for five minutes comparable to attending a two-hour guided meditation session at a yoga studio? “Intensity and duration vary greatly, often aren’t reflected in studies,” the authors write.

Until researchers can agree on technical definitions of mindfulness, it is important to understand the details about mindfulness claims in the media. For example, exactly what type of mindfulness can lead to pain relief?  Did study participants meditate for 30 minutes a day, or complete a 2-minute exercise before they fell asleep each night?

Second, it is often difficult to measure the mental and cognitive changes associated with meditation. Claims that meditation can sharpen your focus, cultivate awareness, or boost compassion are difficult to substantiate in a clinical trial.

When mindfulness is being studied to treat a mental or physical health problem, there are clear methods of measuring improvement. The most thorough, up-to-date meta-analysis. that measured mindfulness’s effect on health problems was commissioned by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The review included studies that compared mindfulness-based interventions – specific regimens of meditation – to other treatments.  The review found that mindfulness was moderately effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain. Mindfulness also yielded some small improvements in reducing stress and improving quality of life.

There was no evidence that mindfulness helped improve attention, mood, eating habits, sleep, weight control, or substance abuse.

The review authors also point out an often-overlooked component of meditation: There are more than 20 published care reports of mental health problems experienced by people meditating including psychosis, mania, anxiety, panic, and memory loss. While the chances of this happening are slim, people using meditation to treat a serious mental health problem can experience side effects that have a negative impact on their psychological health.

The take-home message? Don’t take claims about mindfulness and meditation at face value. There is some evidence that a regular practice can help alleviate depression, anxiety, and pain, and that it may reduce your stress levels or improve your quality of life. But more compelling data is needed to make sweeping claims about the benefits of mindfulness.

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