in Meditation, Reviews: Books and Stuff

The research of mindfulness meditation lacks self-criticism. Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? ask Oxford psychologists.

This post raises two major problems and recommends ways to improve the research.

The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.

An important article, by Oxford psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm in The British Journal of Psychiatry, raises two major problems with researcher’s attempts to study mindfulness:

Two major problems with research of mindfulness

  1. Researchers tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to mindfulness techniques. Advocates present meditation as if it’s always beneficial and seldom acknowledge the practice may not always be positive.
  2. Teachers of mindfulness have little, if any, formal training in mental health. Individuals who practice, especially those who suffer side effects, should have access to qualified mental health professionals. [For one tragic example read ‘She didn’t know what was real’: Did 10-day meditation retreat trigger woman’s suicide?]

Farias and Wikholm conclude their four page article with recommendations to improve the research and some ways to address concerns for people considering the use of mindfulness techniques.

Potential difficult psychological problems with mindfulness

Research on mindfulness (by Lomas et al in 2015) revealed that meditation practice may increase the awareness of difficult  feelings and agitate psychological problems. Forgotten childhood traumas of some practitioners can suddenly confront them during meditation practice:

I saw the depth of the pain that is buried. Things that have happened to me that have not been dealt with properly. It can be very scary to know there’s that very strong thing in there. (Lomas et al)

Mindfulness practice does not add up

Two meta-analysis (studies of studies) disconfirmed the expectation that continuous practice would lead to increasing positive benefits. In other words, they did not find any confirmation that the more you practice meditation or mindfulness the more benefits you get. Apparently the expected positive changes from mindfulness plateau after only a few weeks of practice, rather than increase or accumulate over time.

There is no clear rationale for why continuous mindfulness practice would keep improving well-being or cognitive abilities.

Proponents say continuous [mindfulness or meditation] practice adds up in a mathematical way making you:

  • More mindful
  • Super aware
  • Super controlled
  • Super happy
  • Eventually liberated from the illusion of the individual self.

These are some of the many magical things people expect from continuous practice of mindfulness and meditation.

The ‘mind gym’ can be dangerous to your health

Many people’s magical expectations of meditation techniques may be naive, but it is also dangerous contends Farias and Wikholm. Mindfulness practice is often seen as some kind of ‘mind gym’: Like brushing your teeth or going for a run to protect your health, mindfulness exercises are supposed to bring mental fitness and resilience.

Their own wishful thinking blinds most researchers and practitioners of meditation to self-criticism. Researchers mostly promote the benefits of meditation. Researchers seldom publish studies that show negative or null results. Without critical reflection on mindfulness research we stay content in our magical expectations that meditation makes us super aware, super happy, and super healthy (if not eventually liberated from illusion of self).

Recommend what?

First, we need a clear and thorough theory of how meditation techniques work. Work not magically but practically within the human body and system. We need to identify an ‘active ingredient’, the ‘mechanism of action’, that makes the technique work (versus believing in a lucky rabbit’s foot or placebo). Second, credible research studies need to include placebo groups, control for expectations, and examine why not everyone reacts positively to meditation.

It is important that we speak openly about the potential for adverse effects in order to de-stigmatize the issue; surely the last thing we want is for a patient to feel they ‘failed’ at using a technique, when the reality is that it worked differently [or not at all]…

Originally appeared in Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? Miguel Frias and Catherine Wikholm, The British Journal of Psychiatry (BJPsych) Bulletin 2016 Dec; 40(6): 329–332.

Also, I recommend The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? by Farias and Wikholm. It’s an excellent book that examines numerous studies, what works and what doesn’t with meditation research.

Featured image by Fe Ilya, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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