Mindfulness is a type of meditation derived from the Buddhism, with a Western twist. Its intent is to promote the observation and introspection of thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. The Western influence paints Buddhism as rational, universal, and compatible with science. Like many avant garde approaches to ancient ideas, mindfulness presents itself as way of getting back to the true meaning of the original concept.
Associating itself with Buddhism allows mindfulness advocates to reap the philosophical fruits of attaching itself to a major Eastern religion and appeal to those captivated by such leanings. Yet it maintains enough distance from the most esoteric concepts that mindfulness isn’t considered overtly faith-based, which would drive away those too far in the other direction. And when proponents declare mindfulness to be universal, they further extend their potential reach.
Some research credits mindfulness with a slew of health benefits, which is usually a pseudoscience giveaway. Genuine medicine generally alleviates or cures a specific condition or disease through a scientifically-understood method. The longer the list of supposed treatments, the more likely the product or practice provides none of them.
Also of major note, most mindfulness studies are poorly designed, hampered by insufficient sample sizes, lack control groups, and are not double blinded. In short, evidence for most of the claimed benefits is scant. A review of 47 meditation trials involving 3,500 participants found no evidence for such stated benefits as increasing an attention span, kicking a drug habit, conquering insomnia, or managing weight loss. There are, however, signs that it leads to moderate improvements for some persons in dealing with anxiety and stress. But the technique only works for people for find mindfulness mediation relaxing. A person who finds painting relaxing would get the same benefit from taking brush to canvas.
Another problem is that there is a lack of agreement on what mindfulness is. The various approaches make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion as to if and how well it works. Dr. Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine wrote that the lack of definition matters because proper research controls for specific variables. If those cannot be defined or isolated, the topic cannot be studied in any meaningful way.
He explained this by using an analogy to acupuncture: “If we define acupuncture as placing thin needles through the skin at acupuncture points, we can confidently conclude based upon the research that acupuncture does not work. However, proponents continue to claim that acupuncture does work, citing research results that use a deliberately loose definition of acupuncture. Proponents have essentially said, ‘acupuncture works, it just doesn’t seem to matter where or if you stick the needles.’ Then what is acupuncture? And if specific variables don’t seem to matter, how can you control for non-specific effects?” This lead to another issue, there being no way to control for nonspecific results.
One assertion proponents get right is that mindfulness produces measurable changes to the brain. But the type of brain change cited – thicker gray matter – is associated with many different activities, such as sports competition, playing musical instruments, or learning to reason. And there’s no reason to think these brain changes are beneficial or something to strive for. In summary, a person should use mindfulness if it helps them to relax and destress, but they shouldn’t expect any reward beyond that.