Does mindfulness truly benefit people?
On the one hand, the obvious answer is “yes.” We’ve all heard that meditation reduces stress, improve concentration, deepens sleep, and whitens teeth. (I think I made that last one up.)
Some of you reading this post may have embraced mindfulness, and perhaps tell your neighbors and friends about its healing powers.
This sort of evidence–coming from personal experience–can be powerfully persuasive.
Other Ways of Knowing
On the other hand, if we want to know about mindfulness in a scientific way, we’d like some research. Please.
Research on topics like these typically follows a predictable pattern. In the early days of Mindset theory, for example, Dweck worked with a few dozen people for an hour or so.
When these studies showed promise, she then followed larger groups of people for longer periods of time. In one study, for example, she and Lisa Blackwell followed hundreds of 7th graders for over 4 years.
One recent analysis I saw looked at Mindset data for 125,000 grade-school students. Yup: 125,000.
This trajectory–from small test studies to large and rigorous trials–makes sense. We can’t fund huge investigations of every idea that comes along, so we need to test for the good ideas before we examine them in depth.
But, once an idea–like, say, mindfulness–shows promise in early trials, we’d like to see larger and more rigorous trials as the years go by.
So: is that happening? Are we seeing better studies into mindfulness?
Sadly, not so much. That’s the conclusion of a recent study, which compared early mindfulness research to more recent examples.
We would like to see studies with larger sample sizes, active control conditions, longer-term evaluation of results and so forth. This study finds some positive trends, but overall isn’t impressed with the research progress over the last 13 years.
Of course, their conclusion doesn’t mean that mindfulness doesn’t help.
It does mean, however, that our evidence isn’t as strong as it might seem to be, because we haven’t yet “taken it to the next level.”
By the way: you’ll have the chance to learn more about mindfulness, and about the ways that researchers investigate it, at the upcoming Learning and the Brain conference in New York.
Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263.
Goldberg, S. B., Tucker, R. P., Greene, P. A., Simpson, T. L., Kearney, D. J., & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Is mindfulness research methodology improving over time? A systematic review. PloS one, 12(10), e0187298.