The practice of “mindfulness” is sold by business gurus as a way to focus, relax, and gain mental clarity. In fact, according to an IBISWorld study, the mindfulness business is now a $1 billion industry, with its workshops, books, gadgets, and even phone apps being snapped up by corporate America. Several U.S. 1 Survival Guide stories have featured mindfulness experts offering meditation tips (U.S. 1, June 11, 2014.)
The practice of mindfulness is backed up by scientific studies that indicate that it can improve various kinds of cognitive functioning and even prevent the body from aging.
But Scientific American reports that these claims may be over-hyping research that is of shaky quality. In early October, a group of 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists wrote an article for the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science that slams the scientific studies that support the practice of mindfulness as poorly designed, leaving the evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness woefully lacking.
The authors note that for one thing, the studies do not agree on how to define “mindfulness.” A perhaps more serious flaw is that few of them include control groups. This means that whatever benefits purportedly shown by the studies could be due to the placebo effect, or due to simple relaxation. In other words, it’s not at all clear that chilling out or reading a book is any less effective for de-stressing than fancy meditation training.
The evidence for mindfulness becomes even less trustworthy upon rigorous analysis: a meta-analysis of multiple studies that included placebo controls showed that mindfulness did nothing to enhance attention, curtail substance abuse, aid sleep, or control weight — all benefits that have been touted at various times.
“Our report does not mean that mindfulness meditation is not helpful for some things,” writes Nicholas Van Damm, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Melbourne, and the article’s lead author. “But the scientific rigor just isn’t there yet to be making these big claims.”