The Scientific Meta-Analysis that Casts Doubt on Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a relaxation technique that, above all, serves to reduce stress. However, many people have attributed spiritual characteristics to it, making it seem greater than it actually is. A scientific meta-analysis that was conducted on this topic debunked many myths surrounding it.
The Scientific Meta-Analysis that Casts Doubt on Mindfulness

Last update: 10 July, 2021

In recent years, mindfulness has become very popular in the West. However, a scientific meta-analysis has questioned the benefits that many people attribute to it. This issue is definitely striking because many people, such as writers, psychologists, and other health professionals, believe this approach is valid.

It’s important to remember that mindfulness is a kind of adaptation of transcendental meditation that comes from areas such as Buddhism and Hinduism. People started talking about it in the 1970s when Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn created a technique called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

The word mindfulness is an archaic English term that refers to “attention”. Everyone calls the practice mindfulness, as it refers to the Zen philosophy principle. Although its creator never defined himself as a Buddhist or as a practitioner of Eastern traditions, one could say that mindfulness is a particular interpretation of them.

Mindfulness and Eastern traditions

Religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or practices such as Zen have a thousand-year-old tradition. In the West, the one that stands out the most is the practice of meditation, which, in any case, is very different from what one carries out in the practice of mindfulness.

Moreover, these practices, including meditation, are deeply linked to the religious and sacred beliefs of those who carry them out, in the context in which they came up. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is just a technique. Most people turn to it because they believe it helps relieve stress. 

The same creator of mindfulness defined it as a stress-reducing technique. However, this practice has taken multiple forms and been mixed with countless other techniques and beliefs. What’s for certain is that anxious people use it to gain “inner peace“.

A man meditating in bed.

Casting doubt on mindfulness

Thousands of people in the world claim to have experienced great stress reduction and “spiritual growth” from mindfulness. Despite this, a group of neuroscientists from New Zealand and the United Kingdom conducted a meta-analysis on it. Its results were published in Scientific Reports.

If you don’t know what a meta-analysis is, it’s a survey of the available studies on a particular subject. It means that a group of people collects all pieces of research on a topic and evaluates their validity in order to draw appropriate conclusions. In the end, they make a thorough report on the findings and analyze what we can learn from all that material.

The meta-analysis on mindfulness revealed that many of the studies in this regard had many flaws. One of them was recurrent: the fact that the individual who conducted the study wanted to apply this technique to themselves or others. In fact, in many cases, mindfulness instructors themselves conducted the investigations. Likewise, several of them didn’t work with a representative number of cases.

A woman meditating by herself.

The limitations of this technique

Another flaw is that many of these investigations compared what happened between a group of people that practiced mindfulness with one that didn’t. The appropriate thing, in this case, would’ve been to offer another relaxation alternative to this last group to contrast the results. In the end, both groups were extremely different so it was complicated to draw an appropriate conclusion.

What most researchers concluded is that mindfulness doesn’t offer the benefits that many attribute to it. You don’t reach greater spirituality or develop more empathy or compassion by using this technique. In fact, neuroscientists established that it didn’t produce more well-being than a documentary, physical exercise, or psychotherapy.

One of the authors of the meta-analysis was Miguel Farías from Coventry University. He pointed out two things. For one, he said that mindfulness didn’t have much to do with the Buddhism practiced in the East. Secondly, according to him and other researchers, mindfulness is a kind of mental gymnastics in the Western Hemisphere. For the same reason, it doesn’t have the scope of classical transcendental meditation.

The disturbing thing about the situation is that thousands of people continue to exalt mindfulness, whether in practice or in writing. Actually, this meta-analysis provided conclusions that contradicted most texts one can find on this topic. As many people practice it every day, it’s safe to say that, in this case, beliefs over evidence will prevail.

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