A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation

Van Dam, Nicholas T., et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2017. Full text online.

Abstract. During the past two decades, mindfulness meditation has gone from being a fringe topic of scientific investigation to being an occasional replacement for psychotherapy, tool of corporate well-being, widely implemented educational practice, and “key to building more resilient soldiers.” Yet the mindfulness movement and empirical evidence supporting it have not gone without criticism. Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.

Addressing such concerns, the present article discusses the difficulties of defining mindfulness, delineates the proper scope of research into mindfulness practices, and explicates crucial methodological issues for interpreting results from investigations of mindfulness. For doing so, the authors draw on their diverse areas of expertise to review the present state of mindfulness research, comprehensively summarizing what we do and do not know, while providing a prescriptive agenda for contemplative science, with a particular focus on assessment, mindfulness training, possible adverse effects, and intersection with brain imaging.

Our goals are to inform interested scientists, the news media, and the public, to minimize harm, curb poor research practices, and staunch the flow of misinformation about the benefits, costs, and future prospects of mindfulness meditation.

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Significant reductions in rumination and loneliness

Thamboo, P. A. (2016). The Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Feelings of Loneliness and Ruminative Thinking. MA thesis, The College at Brockport: State University of New York. Full text

From the Abstract: Loneliness is a very distressing experience provoked by perceived deficiencies in interpersonal social contact. In recent years, considerable attention has been oriented towards the transformative changes associated with the practice of mindfulness. Thus, many mindfulness based interventions have emerged and demonstrated efficacy for ameliorating various forms of psychological distress. However, few studies have examined whether the therapeutic benefits are applicable for alleviating loneliness.

Prior research has suggested that the mechanisms of change underlying mindfulness may occur via reductions in rumination, which has been implicated in prolonged feelings of loneliness. The present study concerns the effects of a randomized controlled trial … a mindfulness-based group intervention on self-reported changes in mindfulness, rumination, and loneliness.

Participants (N=82) were randomly assigned to either a treatment or wait-list control group, all of which were assessed at two time periods, pre-intervention and post-intervention. The results revealed that participants in the treatment groups reported significant increases in mindfulness in addition to reductions in rumination and loneliness from pre- to post-intervention in comparison to those in the wait-list control groups. The effect of the intervention on loneliness remained significant even after statistically controlling for self-reported depressive symptoms.

Eating mindfully without caloric cost

Arch, Joanna J., et al. “Enjoying food without caloric cost: The impact of brief mindfulness on laboratory eating outcomes.” Behaviour Research and Therapy (2016). Abstract.

Highlights

  • We assessed the sensory and behavioral benefits of tasting food mindfully.
  • Across two lab studies, brief mindfulness enhanced enjoyment of tasting food.
  • Brief mindfulness led to lower caloric consumption of ‘junk’ foods.
  • Greater tasting enjoyment mediated the impact of mindfulness on lower consumption.
  • These studies suggest potential benefits of mindfulness in the context of eating.

Objective. Mindfulness-based interventions have been increasingly applied to treat eating-related problems ranging from obesity to eating disorders. Yet few studies have empirically examined the mechanisms of a mindful approach to eating. The current studies examine the potential of brief mindfulness instructions to enhance the psychological and behavioral dimensions of eating.

Methods. In three experiments (total N = 319), we examined whether brief mindfulness instructions would enhance the positive sensory experience involved in tasting food as well as healthy eating behaviors.

Results. Relative to distraction control instructions, the first two studies demonstrated that brief mindfulness instructions increased the enjoyment of a commonly pleasurable food (chocolate; Study 1), and a food with generally more mixed associations (raisins; Study 2). The third study replicated and extended these findings to show that brief mindfulness instructions also led to lower calorie consumption of unhealthy food relative to distracted or no-instruction control conditions, an effect mediated by greater eating enjoyment.

Conclusions. Findings demonstrated the power of brief mindfulness instructions to positively impact both health-relevant behavior and sensory experience associated with eating food. Implications for both theory and clinical applications of mindfulness are discussed.

Meditation-induced pain relief

Zeidan, F., et al. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Analgesia. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(46), 15307-15325. Full text.

Significance Statement. Recent findings have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation significantly reduces pain. Given that the “gold standard” for evaluating the efficacy of behavioral interventions is based on appropriate placebo comparisons, it is imperative that we establish whether there is an effect supporting meditation-related pain relief above and beyond the effects of placebo.

Here, we provide novel evidence demonstrating that mindfulness meditation produces greater pain relief and employs distinct neural mechanisms than … sham mindfulness meditation [placebo]. Specifically, mindfulness meditation-induced pain relief activated higher order brain regions, including the orbitofrontal and cingulate cortices. In contrast, placebo analgesia was associated with decreased pain-related brain activation.

These findings demonstrate that mindfulness meditation reduces pain through unique mechanisms and may foster greater acceptance of meditation as an adjunct pain therapy.

Reduces self-related thinking and mind-wandering

Garrison, K. A., et al. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 1-9.

From the Abstract. Meditation has been associated with relatively reduced activity in the default mode network, a brain network implicated in self-related thinking and mind wandering. However, previous imaging studies have typically compared meditation to rest, despite other studies having reported differences in brain activation patterns between meditators and controls at rest. Moreover, rest is associated with a range of brain activation patterns across individuals that has only recently begun to be better characterized.

Therefore, in this study we compared meditation to another active cognitive task, both to replicate the findings that meditation is associated with relatively reduced default mode network activity and to extend these findings by testing whether default mode activity was reduced during meditation, beyond the typical reductions observed during effortful tasks.

In addition, prior studies had used small groups, whereas in the present study we tested these hypotheses in a larger group. The results indicated that meditation is associated with reduced activations in the default mode network, relative to an active task, for meditators as compared to controls. These findings … suggest that meditation leads to relatively reduced default mode processing beyond that observed during another active cognitive task.

Neural mechanisms remain unclear (review)

Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16, 213–225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916. Abstract (including 180 references). Full text at lead author’s website.

Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects.

However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness and job performance in workplace

workplaceDane, E., & Brummel, B. J. (2013). Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intention. Human relations. Epub ahead of inclusion in an issue. Full text.

From the Abstract. Very little empirical research has investigated mindfulness from a workplace perspective. In the study reported here, we address this oversight by examining workplace mindfulness – the degree to which individuals are mindful in their work setting.

We hypothesize that, in a dynamic work environment, workplace mindfulness is positively related to job performance and negatively related to turnover intention, and that these relationships account for variance beyond the effects of constructs occupying a similar conceptual space – namely, the constituent dimensions of work engagement (vigor, dedication, and absorption).

Testing these claims in a dynamic service industry context, we find support for a positive relationship between workplace mindfulness and job performance that holds even when accounting for all three work engagement dimensions. We also find support for a negative relationship between workplace mindfulness and turnover intention, though this relationship becomes insignificant when accounting for the dimensions of work engagement. We consider the theoretical and practical implications of these findings and highlight a number of avenues for conducting research on mindfulness in the workplace.

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