Mindfulness and the Lack of Rigorous Studies

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A Buddhist monk meditates during a mindfulness lesson at a cultural experience program, part of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.'s (MUFG) Global Analyst Program for training top graduates, at the Happo-en garden in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, July 17, 2017. Through the program, MUFG is seeking to develop future leaders who can implement its growth strategy. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mindfulness, a meditation technique implemented in various eastern traditions has surged in use in the United States and other industrialized countries. As I have written before, corporations, the military, hospitals, and even schools have seen a wave in the implementation of meditation techniques, especially mindfulness. Popularized in the west in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn and brought to scientific journals by Richard J. Davidson, mindfulness and its integration to various areas of health have become a multi-billion industry. Since its integrations to the sciences, mindfulness has been researched on the reduction of stress, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD, among others. But are those studies strong enough to back-up an industry that’s been devoured and promoted heavily by capitalism? Moreover, does mindfulness need more rigorous studies?

Mindfulness Lacks Rigorous Studies?

The Trouble of Modern Mindfulness Research

These questions come into mind after reading comments by the psychologist James C. Coyne, who back in 2016 reviewed a scientific article that investigated “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being.” The meta-analysis, led by Madhav Goyal and Sonal Singh, found “low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight.”

The authors gave a fatal blow to the current integration of meditation in various clinical programs by stating:

“Clinicians should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Thus, clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress. Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health and stress-related behavior.”

Coyne found that one of the main problems with meditation (and mindfulness) is the poor design on active control groups and sample sizes. That is, which technique are you comparing mindfulness to when doing these studies, and the number of participants. Usually, mindfulness studies take an experimental group, teach them 8-weeks of mindfulness, while the control group is placed on a waitlist. As Coyne explained in his 2016 post, “Comparisons of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) with wait-list controls and no treatment control conditions produce exaggerated effect sizes for active treatments and may produce positive findings were no differences would be found with an adequate control group.” 

Its Greatest Exporters Have Noticed

Such a problem was noticed by one of the chief promoters of mediation in the west, Richard Davidson. He too reviewed mindfulness, and how the experiments were being designed. Davidson, who produces sizeable scientific literature on mindfulness and other meditation techniques in his laboratory in Wisconsin-Madison, concluded in a 2017 systematic review: “Across the 142 studies published between 2000 and 2016, there was no evidence for increases in any study quality indicator, although changes were generally in the direction of improved quality.” What Davidson encountered was that mediation experiments and research hadn’t improved over ten years.

One of the main things that makes mindfulness appealing, even to the greatest skeptic, is the bulk of research behind the technique. While many “new-age healing methods” don’t have such luxury, mediation, especially mindfulness, has prestigious laboratories working on it – like the one headed by Davidson, or the Max Plank Institute in Germany by Tania Singer. Bad experiments, an increasing surge of literature, and heavy promotion to the mass media can be a recipe for disaster.

Another founding father of the integration of mediation in western society, Daniel Goleman, has caught on to the problem, too. In his 2017 book, Altered Traits (co-authored by Davidson), Goleman even admitted that his initial research on meditation – done in Havard during his Ph.D. days – wouldn’t meet today’s standards (also his) to be included as legitimate research. He opens up about the problematic scientific designs on the study of mediation when trying to present valid data:

“…over the years there has been a ratcheting upward of sophistication as the number of studies of meditation has exploded to more than one thousand per year. This tsunami of meditation research created a foggy picture, with a confusing welter of results. Beyond our focus on the strongest findings, we try to highlight the meaningful patterns within the chaos.”

This is a real concern regarding meditation and especially mindfulness. The techniques have caught on as clinically proven methods, and many hospitals are implementing it. While the Buddha taught his techniques for our mind and body, the implementation of mediation without proper research can play a role in peoples lives, especially in matters of life and death. Cancer patients, soldiers with PTSD, and even drug addicts are joining such programs and the foggy picture on research could affect their lives.

As Coyne explained it beautifully in a tweet below:

Last Word on Mindfulness and the Lack of Rigorous Studies

Davidson, Simon B. Goldberg, and Goleman have raised the red-flag on poor studies, and some basic measures should be implemented to improve the system. First, better active control groups must be implemented. The wait-list control group was a very naive approach by early research. Second, for research to apply to clinics, larger samples must be studied. Third, the risk of placebo effects could be all over the place; researchers must be prepared to find their studies as insignificant or non-important. If the science fields concerning the study of meditation can’t make these and many other adjustments, such techniques could fall in the realms of pseudoscience in the future.

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