The benefits of meditation may have been seriously overhyped, a group of psychologists, neuroscientists, Buddhist scholars and mindfulness teachers warn—and the evidence to support mindfulness as a treatment certainly has been.
A new study by a multidisciplinary group of researchers at several universities calls out the "misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology" that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.
“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors write in their paper, published Tuesday in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
A yoga instructor leads people in a mass meditation at DisclosureFest in Los Angeles on June 17. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Much of the research around meditation and mindfulness has serious flaws, the authors state. Among those flaws: using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.
“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago told Newsweek. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, he is one of the study’s authors. “A lot of the data that’s out there is still premature,” he said.
The revelation is particularly disconcerting in light of how big of a business meditation has become. A veritable industry, the practice brings in around $1 billion annually, according to Fortune. That industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.
Commuters in New York City stop for a Meditation Moment as part of the Westin Well-Being Movement in March 2014. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Westin Hotels & Resorts
Major commercial players in the meditation space have noted many of the issues raised by the authors. “I agree with a lot of the points in the paper," said Sarah Romotsky, head of science communications for Headspace, which sells a meditation app and online sessions.
Specifically, she said, she agreed with the issues behind replicating scientific findings and ensuring that studies used appropriate controls. (The company uses one set of exercises as a control for its own work.) “We’re glad that these issues are being brought to the forefront.”
The lack of strong evidence around meditation is especially an issue for people who want to use meditation as a clinical tool. The National Institutes of Health in the U.S. includes an institute dedicated to complementary approaches, which cites meditation as a potential treatment for high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and pain.
Part of the reason there is so much more research now than there once was is because grants were available for young researchers in the field from sources like the Mind and Life Institute, Vago said. Today, there may be 200 researchers in the field.
Yet according to one study the authors cited, the well-designed studies that have been done on meditation showed that the practice was only moderately effective, at best, for treating conditions like anxiety, depression or the unpleasantness associated with pain.
"It didn’t even show that it increases well-being any more than a social group intervention. Just being in a group setting helps,” Vago said.
Especially if patients decide to use meditation to replace other kinds of treatments or activities, this could pose a real physical or mental health risk. “It still remains unclear who is going to benefit and who doesn’t,” he said. “We still do not understand who benefits and who doesn’t.”
The authors also lay the blame for overstating the benefits of meditation on the media. “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover," Vago said. "And they're labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”