11

Has anyone got a good idea which benefits of mindfulness meditation have got decent scientific evidence supporting them. It would be great it someone could point to good publicly available research or authoritative sites and maybe summarise the research and perhaps the people/organisations doing it.

I'm personally convinced of the benefits due to my own personal experience but I'm interested what the scientific community is saying. I'm sure there is a lot of research out there but I find distilling it overwhelming.

5

I am a neuroscience researcher studying meditation and mindfulness, and also a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Experience suggests to me that it's hard enough for any scientist to remain unbiased about her/his own work, and that can only be more challenging for a researcher studying something that he has already received enormous personal benefits from—like myself and meditation. So, I have chosen to cultivate an attitude of healthy skepticism about my own field.

In light of that, I'll echo Rabbit, whose answer states that the scientific field is young and it's too early to have formed any reliable scientific conclusions. I partially agree that the methodology of most of the studies is "flawed"; however, I think it's more fair to say that the methodology of early exploratory studies was necessarily limited, but now that widespread interest has developed higher quality studies are being designed. This is just an inevitable growth process of a field; high-quality human research studies are extremely expensive and that kind of funding is simply not available until after a certain amount of preliminary evidence has accumulated.

In order to understand the scientific literature on this topic, I think it's important to understand a few distinctions.

One is the distinction between Buddhist meditation and practice as a system designed to reduce suffering and cultivate compassion by softening the mental habit of grasping at a solid sense of self; and "mindfulness" as a broadly used term for a recently fashionable trend in psychological therapy which had its origins primarily in the aforementioned Buddhist tradition, but which has taken on a secular life of its own. These two categories, secular mindfulness vs. Buddhist practice, are frequently poorly distinguished in the scientific literature, and in general usage of key terms like "mindfulness" and "meditation" is somewhat sloppy overall. Some publications reporting "benefits of mindfulness" are actually looking at comparisons of groups of, say, long-time Tibetan Buddhist practitioners vs. controls, which is a very different thing than, say, inexperienced novices randomly assigned to a MBSR group for eight weeks, which is in turn very different from an individual-differences study where randomly selected people's scores on a mindfulness psychological questionnaire are shown to correlate with some other values of interest.

Another important thing to understand is the distinction between specific and non-specific effects. This is a big issue in psychology in general; for example, Bruce Wampold has a large body of evidence showing that psychotherapy in general mainly works because of the "therapeutic alliance" between the therapist and patient, and the specific type of therapy is virtually irrelevant. Likewise, our lab has published research showing no differences between MBSR and another, non-mindfulness-based health and well-being intervention on a range of general measures (see MacCoon et. al. 2012 and 2014 at that link). This is NOT to say that the interventions in question are "ineffective"; to the contrary, they are quite effective. What is missing is scientific evidence regarding how, specifically, one unique technique is effective, and how it might be uniquely different in its effects from the wide range of various things one might do to improve physical and mental health. This is kind of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it's good news, because it means the science supports the idea that you don't have to worry too much about doing exactly the right thing. On the other hand, it's bad news, because in some cases it might be important to choose exactly the right thing, and we don't know how to do that yet.

Now I'm going to say a few things about what I think might be hinted at but not yet proven in the scientific literature, with regard to specific benefits related to Buddhist practice and/or the aspects of mindfulness that are most closely related thereto.

As I mentioned briefly above, the more or less uniquely Buddhist practice of suffering-reduction is based on reducing the habit of grasping at a sense of solid and enduring self that is threatened by change and uncertainty. There are a few areas where I think (but certainly can't prove yet) that the scientific literature is on the right track for this.

One starts with Jon Kabat-Zinn's own early seminal publications on MBSR. The first paper published on the topic states, "the SR&RP [earlier name for MBSR] functions as a 'net' to catch patients who tend to 'fall through the cracks' in the health care delivery system, neither improving in their medical system over time nor feeling satisfied with the results of the traditional medical management of their problem(s)... Many chronic pain patients ultimately receive the verdict that 'you're going to have to learn to live with this.' The SR&RP helps teach patients the how of living with chronic pain." The implication here is that the early clinical successes reported for MBSR were in populations that were receiving it as a last resort. They were highly motivated because all other promises of relief had failed, and they were highly primed by their last-resort status to accept the message of acceptance and non-striving that is part of mindfulness. In other words, the motivation was there to truly let go of something deep about themselves. I would say that this process is necessary for any truly specific effects of mindfulness; and the level of motivation necessary makes it very unlikely that this process will show up in studies with random assignment to groups, or non-last-resort populations. In summary, I think the literature hints that mindfulness has unique and specific benefits for populations who are truly at a last resort and have no choice but to accept acceptance.

The other regards autoimmune conditions. Among the early MBSR research was also a finding of benefit for psoriasis. Also, the work of Melissa Rosenkranz in our lab has been steadily closing in on a specific function of mindfulness for fine-tuning the immune system. Note that Dr. Rosenkranz's papers at that link do not yet fully make that case, but I am hopeful that her work is moving toward putting the pieces together to show that mindfulness, even relative to the active control intervention, has unique benefits in training the immune system to properly distinguish biological "self" from infection, which is the necessary condition for improving autoimmune conditions. This is particularly intriguing given the fundamental role of the psychological "self" in Buddhist practice and mindfulness.

So, in conclusion, I'd say that there is a lot of evidence of non-specific benefits of Mindfulness, Buddhist practice, etc. There is no conclusive evidence yet of any effects specific to any of the different meanings of the word "mindfulness". However, there is some evidence beginning to accumulate for some specific beneficial effects, particularly in areas regarding appropriately high levels of motivation, and conditions that are relevant to the uniquely self-related aspects of Buddhism/mindfulness.

Now, all that aside, my own personal experience of benefit from my Buddhist practice is a very different story from all that, but that's not really the topic of this question!

6

The USA's NIH has an NCCAM page for meditation with links to up-to-date research on the benefits of meditation:

http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation

Asking for scientific proof is a bit misguided, I think, and in the case of meditation it's difficult to obtain even conclusive evidence. Many of the studies are suggestive at best, but the topics studied include:

  • Smoking Cessation
  • Reducing Risk of Suicidal Thoughts
  • Treating Ulcerative Colitis
  • Effecting Genetic Changes (esp. prostate)
  • Treating Acute Respiratory Infections
  • Reducing Severity of IBS in Women
  • Effecting Structural Changes and Improving Information Processing in the Brain
  • Coping With Stress
  • Improving Cell-Level Processes Related to Disease
  • Cultivating Empathy
3

I would recommend to take a look at the website of Meditation and Mindfulness Research Group at Liverpool John Moores University. They not only present the results of various studies but also explain those in simpler, not-too-scientific terms. In their research blog they discuss neuroplasticity and meditation, neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation or Cognition and Emotion in Meditation, to name a few.

This article also seems to nicely sum up the effects of meditation with links to the peer-reviewed articles. The author groups the effects of meditation in the following categories:

  • It boosts your health
  • It boosts your happiness
  • It boosts your social life
  • It boosts your self-control
  • It changes your brain (for better)
  • It improves your productivity
  • It makes you wiser

On the other hand, there are also claims that there are serious drawbacks of mindfulness meditation. Mind focusing is seen as an opposite of mind wandering which tends to stimulate one's creativity. Thus, it is claimed that too focused mind can lead to decreased creativity. Another drawback is related to decreased ability to perform implicit learning:

implicit learning - the kind that underlies all sorts of acquired skills and habits but that occurs without conscious awareness. In the study, participants were shown a long sequence of items and repeatedly challenged to guess which one would come next. Although supposedly random, it contained a hidden pattern that made some items more likely to appear than others. The more mindful participants were worse at intuiting the correct answers (...)

Interestingly, here you can see the response of another scientist who researches mindfulness meditation who, in short, does not agree with the drawbacks mentioned above.

In general, the research on meditation started only recently and it is too early to state any definite answers. There are also signals that the methodology of most of the studies is flawed and much more funds and trials are needed to obtain more reliable results.

2

This paper provides a synthesis of the empirically supported advantages of mindfulness.
by Dr. Daphne M. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes Pennsylvania State University

http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/Benefits_of_Mindfulness.pdf

  • 2
    Welcome to Buddism SE! Great paper, but could you please summarize the main conclusions and add them to your answer. This way your answer will remain valuable, even if the link breaks. – THelper Aug 17 '14 at 7:10
1

There is Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) initiative where Mindfulness has been used for its therapeutic benefits in a scientific environment.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.