Many “effects” of Mindfulness research could in fact be a placebo effect

We have asked Mind & Life Europe asscociate and assistent Professor cognitive modelling at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Marieke van Vugt about the the mindfulness hype, what it is, where it comes from and where it is going.

At the end of 2017, you wrote an article about the mindfulness hype. Can you explain what the mindfulness hype is and where it comes from?

The mindfulness hype refers to the deluge of articles and other media contributions that claim that mindfulness is the solution to everything—from improving your concentration to becoming a more successful CEO. However, if you look at the actual research findings, those do not provide a strong support for many exaggerated claims of the benefits of mindfulness. For example, most studies do not have an active control group, so many “effects” could in fact be a placebo effect.

Why do you think mindfulness has become so popular in such a short time?

I do not have scientific evidence for this, but one reason may be that life seems to be moving faster and faster, and people are looking for a way to keep up. Since many mindfulness interventions emphasize slowing down, this becomes a natural match. In addition, as the role of religion in the West has decreased, people may have been looking for an alternative connection to meaning, and for some people mindfulness may fill that void.

Mindfulness is a young field of research, what challenges does this pose in relation to more established fields of research?

I think a lot of the quality problems arise from the paucity of funding available for this kind of research in early years. For example, I received a Varela award in 2007, which allowed me to investigate the cognitive mechanisms of meditation, but I could not afford to run an active control group, and therefore we only used a passive control group (van Vugt & Jha, 2010). As the field becomes more established, such active control groups become much more feasible, and should be required. Another problem is that adequate definitions of constructs such as ‘mindfulness’ have not yet been developed. Therefore, I have been advocating the use of computational modelling to investigate meditation. Computational modelling is one way (not the only way!) to force you to have solid definitions, because you cannot argue much about an equation. Last year, I presented the first computational model of meditation, which I developed with a very bright student from the University of Berne (Moye & van Vugt, 2017). My aim is to eventually use this model to make predictions about the cognitive processes that should benefit from specific types of meditation, and maybe also what cognitive processes may be impaired.

What critique has there been of the methodologies used to research mindfulness and what are your recommendations to overcome these?

In addition to using active control groups and being more specific in our definitions of what we are measuring, we have given some other recommendations in our recent article on the mindfulness hype (Van Dam et al., 2017). We recommend being more specific about the intervention you are using (for example, working with people who have practised meditation for decades is not the same as doing a 10-minute mindfulness induction). In addition, it is important to not just look at the benefits of meditation, but also to actively ask what harmful side effects may occur because of these practices. Willoughby Britton has done some pioneering work to start mapping out the kinds of adverse experiences people have, which include things such as difficulties sleeping, resurfacing of traumas and alterations in perception (Lind ahl et al., 2017).

What motivates you to engage in research on contemplative practices? 

Despite the critical paper on mindfulness research, I am still quite passionate about research into meditation. In my experience, contemplative practices can bring a lot of benefits. Most importantly, many contemplative practices can cultivate prosocial emotions such as kindness and compassion, which are so crucial for society, especially in the current day and age. If my research could inspire people to take up contemplative practices, and thereby become a little more kind, that would be amazing! In addition, I feel that my research deepens my practice, because it inspires me to think more deeply about what I am doing when I practise meditation myself.

What do you think of the current trend of mindfulness and meditation apps that have become so popular? What are the pros and cons compared to face to face?

I think apps can play a large role in making practices accessible for large audiences. For this reason, I am involved in the development of an app called “Bodhi”. Nevertheless, I think an app really needs a face to face context to supplement it, because otherwise people lose motivation quickly, there is a large potential for misunderstanding, and there is no support in case adverse effects occur.

Where is mindfulness research at and where should it go in your view?

I think mindfulness and meditation research is now at a point where it should become a serious science. That is, it should start to develop serious theories about the mechanisms underlying this practice, it should start to do more rigorous studies that include preregistered hypotheses, larger sample sizes and active control conditions. Until now, you can say we have just been fooling around a little, and now it becomes time to build some more solid evidence. I also hope that we will start to collaborate more, e.g., by sharing best practices and materials, such that it becomes easier to replicate each other. Maybe at some point we can have a European contemplative research institute in which we can bring this all together, a kind of CERN for meditation research! Finally, I believe we should expand our horizons to other types of contemplative practices than Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which currently form the bulk of meditation research. For example, I am currently collaborating with Tibetan monks in India to investigate the effects of their analytical meditation and monastic debate practices on emotions and cognition. In these practices, reasoning plays a larger role than in many other contemplative practices, which makes it a very interesting practice to complement mindfulness. Moreover, our research allows us to give the Tibetan monks, who are experts in these practices, a voice in the scientific literature, which I think is another thing that needs to happen: a widening in the set of voices that are being heard in science.

What advice do you give researchers into mindfulness and meditation?

The most important in this kind of research is to think carefully about what the theory is behind your experiment. What is the actual mechanism you are testing? In addition, I think it is important that you work together with other people to test your ideas. A particularly useful collaboration model is an adversarial collaboration; in the context of meditation research this could take the form of a mindfulness practitioner-researcher working together with a mindfulness sceptic. In this way, the experimental design, results and interpretation will be much more thoroughly tested than in a collaboration between two mindfulness proponents.

What advice would you give people interested in mindfulness or practicing mindfulness?

Do not expect miracles! In my own experience, mindfulness is tremendously useful, but it is not a miracle cure: it is hard work. In addition, everyone is different, so just investigate what works in your own experience. While there is an emerging science of mindfulness, I think we have not (yet) developed scientific tools to measure the most important effects of mindfulness. For example, what I see in seasoned practitioners is often a sense of lightness and bubbling humour radiating from them, but I have no idea how to measure this (although I have been recently working on tools to assess how much people get stuck in their thoughts).

As mindfulness is becoming more and more mainstream: NHS, education, what do you see as positives to these developments, what challenges should we be aware of and how can we overcome them?

I think it is wonderful that more people get to try mindfulness. However, we should be aware that what works for us does not necessarily work for everyone. Most of the scientific work on mindfulness is done in affluent white populations in the West, and it is not clear that that does generalize to other communities. I think it is crucial that people always have a choice to practise mindfulness and are never forced. In addition, I think there should be good monitoring of adverse effects of mindfulness, such that we can slowly start to also develop contraindications.

What is the role of Mind and Life Europe in all of this?

Mind & Life Europe could be a network that brings scientists studying contemplative practices together, and maybe even provide an infrastructure to share materials and best practices. In addition, I hope it can be a place where good information that is solidly supported by science, about the effects of mindfulness can be disseminated, because there is also a lot of misinformation around.


2 thoughts on “Many “effects” of Mindfulness research could in fact be a placebo effect”

  1. Thank you for this addition to a longer lasting academic dialogue than the article suggests. For example, and as far I am well informed, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre does research already for more than 20 years.

    Quoting from above the following sentence …

    “Despite the critical paper on mindfulness research, I am still quite passionate about research into meditation. In my experience, contemplative practices can bring a lot of benefits.”

    … I see three descriptions (mindfulness, meditation and contemplative practices) which seem to refer to the same activity. Perhaps they refer to different angles of the same.

    My information came from a “MOOC called De-mystifying Mindfulness”, provided by Universiteit Leiden (and to be followed through Coursera). I can only hope that people who study mindfulness will and can find each other in their journeys to get to know (or sense…) even more than we already know (and sense).

  2. In my opinion based on personal experience i agree that there are negative effects too, that is why a master’s company is advised. Every enlightened person sees the same perspective, path may be different or infinite. So a generalisation is beyond the scope of study. Finding the right persons for your study is toughest job by a person who has not experienced it or you need to take help of such persons, they may be ordinary people.

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