Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Science and Mindfulness Meditation

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Literacy, Nature of Science, Science & Society

Ed Hessler

Science and mindfulness meditation (MM) is what Jonathan Jarry addresses in an Office for Science & Society (OSS) column.

Are the claims about its effectiveness in reducing stress true? Jarry points out that there has been "an exponential growth in the number of studies about ... how mindfulness might help with anxiety, depression, ADHD, sleep, and cognition, in all age groups." How do they add up?

Its history, roots, is reviewed, with Jarry noting that it is important to "point out that mindfulness is usually stripped of the spirituality and ethical philosophy within which it is practiced." It is different from formal meditation which is "to empty your mind; rather, it's about training yourself to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way." The practice is anchored on focusing on your breath - Jarry describes how this is commonly taught.

One of the difficulties in studying the practice is that while mindfulness meditation is defined, the toolkit of meditation is capacious, stretching the definition. Coloring and flower arranging are two examples. Jarry describes a problem with its study in one randomized controlled trial which is followed by a discussion of a danger in science: wanting to prove a belief v disprove a hypothesis. The latter he observes is "rarely seen in practice."

Jarry provides many examples of "how difficult it is to study the human mind," the old canard that "doing something is better than doing nothing," a research design variable (short-term studies v. length of practice), some reported negative side effects, a variable in studying effects in short, who is tested (ages of participants) and others. 
About the various problems, Jarry reminds us of "the crucial difference between efficacy and effectiveness, two words which are not synonymous in science. The efficacy of mindfulness is when the intervention is done under ideal conditions; its effectiveness is how it fares in the real world."

Because it has been so much in the news you will recall that MM has had a quick adoption rate which Jarry finds "unsettling...[I]t displaces societal problems onto the individual. The message often conveyed is that if people are stressed out or depressed or anxious about the world around them, it’s because they’re not meditating enough. We already see this with pollution and climate change: how easily corporations will put the onus on consumers to stop littering and to recycle." 

Jarry is not against MM but is against " its promotion as a coping tool by organizations that refuse to change and against its proselytizing as a revolution-in-the-making, when the mountains of scientific evidence so far show that, in the short term at least, its benefits are no different than those of similar stress-relieving activities."

He closes with this comment "If you want to give mindfulness a try, simply focus on your breath and keep your expectations low," followed by his standard list of take-home messages.

Here is the essay which I urge you to read. My summary is frugal. 

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