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The State of Mindfulness Science: 10 Key Research Findings to Encourage and Guide your Meditation Practice in 2018


Dur­ing the past two decades, more and more sci­en­tists have stud­ied mindfulness—a Bud­dhist-inspired col­lec­tion of prac­tices aimed at help­ing us to cul­ti­vate moment-to-moment aware­ness of our­selves and our envi­ron­ment. Their ear­ly find­ings trig­gered an enor­mous amount of enthu­si­asm for med­i­ta­tion.

Some­times, how­ev­er, jour­nal­ists and even sci­en­tists (who should know bet­ter) have over­stat­ed the phys­i­cal and men­tal health ben­e­fits, which has fed grow­ing skep­ti­cism about mind­ful­ness.

Indeed, the sci­ence behind mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion has often suf­fered from poor research designs and small effect sizes, as 15 psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists found after review­ing hun­dreds of mind­ful­ness stud­ies. Their paper, pub­lished in Octo­ber by Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, argues that there is still much we don’t under­stand about mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion. Worse, many sci­en­tists and prac­ti­tion­ers don’t even agree on the def­i­n­i­tion of those words. They end the paper call­ing for “truth in adver­tis­ing by con­tem­pla­tive neu­ro­science.”

In that spir­it, here’s a run­down of ques­tions that seem fair­ly set­tled, for the time being, and ques­tions researchers are still explor­ing.

1. Meditation almost certainly does sharpen your attention

It’s not sur­pris­ing that med­i­ta­tion would affect atten­tion, since many prac­tices focus on this very skill. And, in fact, researchers have found that med­i­ta­tion helps to counter habituation—the ten­den­cy to stop pay­ing atten­tion to new infor­ma­tion in our envi­ron­ment. Oth­er stud­ies have found that mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion can reduce mind-wan­der­ing and improve our abil­i­ty to solve prob­lems.

There’s more good news: Stud­ies have shown that improved atten­tion seems to last up to five years after mind­ful­ness train­ing, again sug­gest­ing trait-like changes are pos­si­ble.

Do these ben­e­fits apply to peo­ple with atten­tion-deficit dis­or­ders, and could med­i­ta­tion pos­si­bly sup­plant drugs like Adder­all? We can’t yet say for sure. While there have been some promis­ing small-scale stud­ies, espe­cial­ly with adults, we need larg­er ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als to under­stand how med­i­ta­tion might mix with oth­er treat­ments to help both kids and adults man­age atten­tion-deficits.

2. Long-term, consistent meditation does seem to increase resiliency to stress

Note that we’re not say­ing it nec­es­sar­i­ly reduces phys­i­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal reac­tions to threats and obsta­cles. But stud­ies to date do sug­gest that med­i­ta­tion helps mind and body bounce back from stress and stress­ful sit­u­a­tions.

For exam­ple, prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion lessens the inflam­ma­to­ry response in peo­ple exposed to psy­cho­log­i­cal stres­sors, par­tic­u­lar­ly for long-term med­i­ta­tors. Accord­ing to neu­ro­science research, mind­ful­ness prac­tices damp­en activ­i­ty in our amyg­dala and increase the con­nec­tions between the amyg­dala and pre­frontal cor­tex. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reac­tive to stres­sors and to recov­er bet­ter from stress when we expe­ri­ence it.

As Daniel Gole­man and Richard David­son write in their new book, Altered Traits, “These changes are trait-like: They appear not sim­ply dur­ing the explic­it instruc­tion to per­ceive the stress­ful stim­uli mind­ful­ly, but even in the ‘base­line’ state” for longer-term med­i­ta­tors, which sup­ports the pos­si­bil­i­ty that mind­ful­ness changes our abil­i­ty to han­dle stress in a bet­ter, more sus­tain­able way.”

3. Meditation does appear to increase compassion. It also makes our compassion more effective.

While we may espouse com­pas­sion­ate atti­tudes, we can also suf­fer when we see oth­ers suf­fer­ing, which can cre­ate a state of paral­y­sis or with­draw­al.

Many well-designed stud­ies have shown that prac­tic­ing lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion for oth­ers increas­es our will­ing­ness to take action to relieve suf­fer­ing. It appears to do this by less­en­ing amyg­dala activ­i­ty in the pres­ence of suf­fer­ing, while also acti­vat­ing cir­cuits in the brain that are con­nect­ed to good feel­ings and love.

For long­time med­i­ta­tors, activ­i­ty in the “default network”—the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activ­i­ty, rumi­nates on thoughts, feel­ings, and experiences—quiets down, sug­gest­ing less rumi­na­tion about our­selves and our place in the world.

4. Meditation does seem to improve mental health—but it’s not necessarily more effective than other steps you can take

Ear­ly research sug­gest­ed that mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion had a dra­mat­ic impact on our men­tal health. But as the num­ber of stud­ies has grown, so has sci­en­tif­ic skep­ti­cism about these ini­tial claims.

For exam­ple, a 2014 meta-analy­sis pub­lished in JAMA Inter­nal Med­i­cine exam­ined 47 ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion pro­grams, which includ­ed a total of 3,515 par­tic­i­pants. They found that med­i­ta­tion pro­grams result­ed only in small to mod­er­ate reduc­tions in anx­i­ety and depres­sion. Fur­ther­more, there was also low, insuf­fi­cient, or no evi­dence of med­i­ta­tion pro­grams’ effect on pos­i­tive mood and feel­ings and sub­stance use (as well as phys­i­cal self-care like eat­ing habits and sleep).

Accord­ing to the authors, med­i­ta­tion pro­grams were not shown to be more ben­e­fi­cial than active treatments—such as exer­cise, ther­a­py, or tak­ing pre­scrip­tion drugs—on any out­comes of inter­est.

The research is also rais­ing some inter­est­ing nuances about the effec­tive­ness of med­i­ta­tion for dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions. For exam­ple, one recent, large-scale, well-designed study found that the “gold stan­dard” Mind­ful­ness Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) inter­ven­tion for adults had no impact on depres­sion or anx­i­ety in teens. As the authors note, this doesn’t mean med­i­ta­tion can’t help teenagers—it could well be the case that we need to devel­op and test inter­ven­tions aimed at younger peo­ple.

The upshot? Med­i­ta­tion is gen­er­al­ly good for your well-being, yes, but so far it doesn’t appear to be actu­al­ly bet­ter than many oth­er steps you can take to stay healthy and hap­py. It should def­i­nite­ly be con­sid­ered an adjunct to, not a replace­ment for, oth­er kinds of treat­ment for men­tal con­di­tions like bipo­lar dis­or­der.

5. Mindfulness could have a positive impact on your relationships

There are many, many stud­ies that find a pos­i­tive link between mind­ful­ness and rela­tion­ship qual­i­ty, which is prob­a­bly a byprod­uct of the effects we’ve already described.

For exam­ple, in one 2016 study, researchers mea­sured mind­ful­ness in 88 cou­ples. Then they took cor­ti­sol lev­els in each cou­ple before and after they dis­cussed a con­flict in their rela­tion­ship. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, cor­ti­sol lev­els spiked dur­ing the dis­cus­sion, a sign of high stress. But lev­els in the most mind­ful people—both men and women—were quick­er to return to nor­mal after the con­flict end­ed, sug­gest­ing they were keep­ing their cool.

This result is echoed in many stud­ies of mind­ful­ness in roman­tic rela­tion­ships from the begin­ning to the very end—in fact, there are quite a few stud­ies that find that mind­ful­ness makes breakup and divorce eas­i­er.

Mind­ful­ness is also linked to bet­ter rela­tion­ships with your kids. Stud­ies have found that mind­ful­ness prac­tice can lessen stress, depres­sion, and anx­i­ety in par­ents of preschool­ers and chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties. Mind­ful par­ent­ing is also linked to more pos­i­tive behav­ior in kids.

A small 2016 pilot study used neu­roimag­ing to see how mind­ful­ness prac­tice changes the brains of parents—and then asked the kids about the qual­i­ty of their par­ent­ing. The results sug­gest that mind­ful­ness prac­tice seemed to acti­vate the part of the brain involved in empa­thy and emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion (the left ante­ri­or insula/inferior frontal gyrus) and that the chil­dren of par­ents who showed the most acti­va­tion per­ceived the great­est improve­ment in the par­ent-child rela­tion­ship.

We must remem­ber, how­ev­er, that these stud­ies are often very small, and the researchers them­selves say results are very ten­ta­tive.

6. Mindfulness seems to reduce many kinds of bias

We are see­ing more and more stud­ies sug­gest­ing that prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness can reduce psy­cho­log­i­cal bias.

For exam­ple, one study found that a brief lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion reduced prej­u­dice toward home­less peo­ple, while anoth­er found that a brief mind­ful­ness train­ing decreased uncon­scious bias against black peo­ple and elder­ly peo­ple. In a study by Adam Lueke and col­leagues, white par­tic­i­pants who received a brief mind­ful­ness train­ing demon­strat­ed less biased behav­ior (not just atti­tudes) toward black par­tic­i­pants in a trust game.

How­ev­er, social bias isn’t the only kind of men­tal bias mind­ful­ness appears to reduce. For exam­ple, sev­er­al stud­ies con­vinc­ing­ly show that mind­ful­ness prob­a­bly reduces sunk-cost bias, which is our ten­den­cy to stay invest­ed in a los­ing propo­si­tion.

Mind­ful­ness also seems to reduce our nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to focus on the neg­a­tive things in life. In one study, par­tic­i­pants report­ed on their gen­er­al mind­ful­ness lev­els, then briefly viewed pho­tos that induced strong pos­i­tive emo­tion (like pho­tos of babies), strong neg­a­tive emo­tion (like pho­tos of peo­ple in pain), or nei­ther, while hav­ing their brains scanned. More mind­ful par­tic­i­pants were less reac­tive to neg­a­tive pho­tos and showed high­er indi­ca­tions of pos­i­tive feel­ing when see­ing the pos­i­tive pho­tos. Accord­ing to the authors, this sup­ports the con­tention that mind­ful­ness decreas­es the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias, some­thing oth­er stud­ies sup­port, too.

7. Meditation does have an impact on physical health—but it’s modest

Many claims have been made about mind­ful­ness and phys­i­cal health, but some­times these claims are hard to sub­stan­ti­ate or may be mixed up with oth­er effects. That said, there is some good evi­dence that med­i­ta­tion affects phys­i­o­log­i­cal indices of health.

We’ve already men­tioned that long-term med­i­ta­tion seems to buffer peo­ple from the inflam­ma­to­ry response to stress. In addi­tion, med­i­ta­tors seem to have increased activ­i­ty of telom­erase, an enzyme impli­cat­ed in longer cell life and, there­fore, longevi­ty.

But there’s a catch. “The dif­fer­ences found [between med­i­ta­tors and non-med­i­ta­tors] could be due to fac­tors like edu­ca­tion or exer­cise, each of which has its own buffer­ing effect on brains,” write Gole­man and David­son in Altered Traits. “Then there’s self-selec­tion: Per­haps peo­ple with the brain changes report­ed in these stud­ies choose to stick with med­i­ta­tion while oth­ers do not.” In oth­er words, we should use cau­tion when cham­pi­oning results.

8. Meditation might not be good for everyone all the time

Some seem to believe mind­ful­ness prac­tice will invari­ably induce a sense of peace and calm. While this can be the expe­ri­ence for many, it is not the expe­ri­ence for all. At times, sit­ting qui­et­ly with one­self can be a difficult—even painful—experience. For indi­vid­u­als who have expe­ri­enced some sort of trau­ma, sit­ting and med­i­tat­ing can at times bring up recent or some­times decades-old painful mem­o­ries and expe­ri­ences that they may not be pre­pared to con­front.

In a new study pub­lished in the jour­nal PLoS ONE, Jared Lin­dahl and col­leagues inter­viewed 100 med­i­ta­tors about “chal­leng­ing” expe­ri­ences. They found that many of them expe­ri­enced fear, anx­i­ety, pan­ic, numb­ness, or extreme sen­si­tiv­i­ty to light and sound that they attrib­uted to med­i­ta­tion. Cru­cial­ly, they found that these expe­ri­ences weren’t restrict­ed to peo­ple with “pre-exist­ing” con­di­tions, like trau­ma or men­tal ill­ness; they could hap­pen to any­one at any time.

In this new domain of research, there is still a lot we do not under­stand. Future research needs to explore the rela­tion­ship between case his­to­ries and med­i­ta­tion expe­ri­ences, how the type of prac­tice relates to chal­leng­ing expe­ri­ences, and the influ­ence of oth­er fac­tors like social sup­port.

9. What kind of meditation is right for you? That depends.

Mind­ful­ness” is a big umbrel­la that cov­ers many dif­fer­ent kinds of prac­tice. A 2016 study com­pared four dif­fer­ent types of med­i­ta­tion, and found that they each have their own unique ben­e­fits.

Dur­ing body scan, for exam­ple, par­tic­i­pants saw the biggest increas­es in how aware they were of their bod­ies (unsur­pris­ing­ly) and the sharpest decline in the num­ber of thoughts they were hav­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly neg­a­tive thoughts and thoughts relat­ed to the past and future. Lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion led to the great­est boost in their feel­ings of warmth and pos­i­tive thoughts about oth­ers. Mean­while, observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion seemed to increase par­tic­i­pants’ aware­ness of their thoughts the most. Pre­vi­ous research also sug­gests that observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion has an advan­tage in reduc­ing our judg­men­tal atti­tude toward oth­ers.

Tak­en togeth­er, these and oth­er stud­ies sug­gest that if you’re tack­ling a spe­cif­ic issue—say, feel­ing dis­con­nect­ed from your body—then you can choose a prac­tice aimed at help­ing that issue, like the body scan. Lov­ing-kind­ness might help in con­flict with oth­ers, while observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion can help break rumi­na­tion.

The type of med­i­ta­tion mat­ters,” explain post­doc­tor­al researcher Bethany Kok and pro­fes­sor Tania Singer. “Each prac­tice appears to cre­ate a dis­tinct men­tal envi­ron­ment, the long-term con­se­quences of which are only begin­ning to be explored.”

10. How much meditation is enough? That also depends.

This isn’t the answer most peo­ple want to hear. Many of us are look­ing for a med­ical­ly pre­scrip­tive response (e.g., three times a week for 45–60 min­utes), but the best guide might be this old Zen say­ing: “You should sit in med­i­ta­tion for twen­ty min­utes every day—unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”

To date, empir­i­cal research has yet to arrive at a con­sen­sus about how much is “enough.” Aside from the raw num­ber of min­utes, oth­er fac­tors may inter­act to influ­ence the ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness prac­tice: the type (e.g., for­mal sit­ting med­i­ta­tion prac­tice vs. infor­mal med­i­ta­tion prac­tices, mind­ful­ness vs. com­pas­sion, etc.), the fre­quen­cy (mul­ti­ple times a day vs. mul­ti­ple times a week), and the qual­i­ty (sit­ting and actu­al­ly doing the prac­tice vs. doing the prac­tice “on the go”). While it’s pos­si­ble that in the next 10–15 years we will see a CDC-style rec­om­men­da­tion regard­ing med­i­ta­tion prac­tice, to date, the empir­i­cal data on the top­ic are still incon­clu­sive.

Our rec­om­men­da­tion? Try out dif­fer­ent dura­tions, types, and fre­quen­cies of med­i­ta­tion and jot down how you feel before and after the practice—and see what seems to work for you.

Greater Good staff and writ­ers Jere­my Adam Smith, Kira M. New­man, Hoo­ria Jazaieri and Jill Sut­tie pre­pared this arti­cle for Lion’s Roar Mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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