Why mindfulness research is problematic

The problems of a PhD student

One of my biggest reasons for starting this blog was actually the discovery of how difficult it is to study mindfulness scientifically, which is what today’s post is dedicated to. The things is, my whole PhD is about studying mindfulness scientifically. So that’s a bit of a problem! Nonetheless, it is a topic that’s worth discussing, and this post will briefly outline the three (in my eyes) biggest problems of conducting mindfulness research.

Defining mindfulness

The umbrella problem of studying mindfulness is: how do you study something that is so subjective and personal? In fact, before you can start studying it, you should probably attempt to define it. I have mentioned commonly used mindfulness definitions in previous blogs, but there is still no consensus on how mindfulness should be defined. Additionally, mindfulness as part of original Buddhist traditions differs greatly from “contemporary mindfulness” that has been separated from its roots and philosophy. If the issue of definitions can be overcome, we are still faced with the problem of studying a concept that is so subjective. In an attempt for objectivity, neurological techniques have been applied to measure brain activity and different attentional and cognitive functions during and after meditation practice (with some promising findings). But are changes in brain chemistry enough to describe the full experience of meditation? Do all individuals react the same to meditation practice? Are the changes in brain activity and cognitive functions following meditation retained in the long-term? These and many other questions should be considered in future research attempting to study mindfulness and meditation.

Measuring mindfulness

There is a large variety of self-report measures used in research that attempt to measure mindfulness. The two most widely used ones are the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ). There are several inherent issues with using self-report questionnaires to measure mindfulness. The first is a problem of validity. Are the questionnaires really measuring mindfulness? How can they be tested and validated against objective measures of mindfulness? Are there any objective measures of mindfulness? If this barrier can be crossed, a second problem emerges. Suppose self-report questionnaires really do measure mindfulness specifically, and are filled out as honestly as possible. Do human beings really have such an accurate awareness about their mental states? If they do have that awareness, is that not on its own a sign of mindfulness? And if they have meditated and practiced mindfulness for a long time, would they not also become more aware of their mindless habits, and thus be likely to score lower on mindfulness questionnaires than individuals who are less mindful, but unaware that they are less mindful? That got complicated really fast, didn’t it?

Isolating mindfulness

Suppose you can define mindfulness accurately, measure it objectively, and study it scientifically, yet in a way that embodies the full nature of mindfulness. You create mindfulness-based interventions based on your data, and they prove to be effective for depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders, or whatever other condition they were created for. How do you prove that mindfulness itself was the active component in that intervention? I have previously written about the various mindfulness-based interventions and therapies currently used in mindfulness research, and in general they tend to consist of group-based sessions delivered over a certain period of time. However, these sessions do not only contain meditation or specific mindfulness techniques (e.g., body scan, walking meditation, breathing meditation, mindful eating, etc.). They contain a whole range of components, such as group discussions, education and information, light physical activity (e.g., yoga or stretching), and even home-based exercises. How can we know which of these components contribute most or at all to recovery? Without active control (comparison) groups that match mindfulness-based interventions completely, but without the isolated mindfulness component, this question is difficult, if not impossible to answer (Malinowski, 2017).

Conclusion

This is where I am today. The PhD is getting busier and busier. The reading materials keep growing. Mindfulness pops up almost everywhere. All I can conclude at this point is that more research is needed. Research that is of sound methodological quality, research that is rigorous in nature, research that is objective and scientific, but also research that remembers the origins of mindfulness as something bigger than an isolated component. And maybe, one day, I can add a small contribution to that literature.

 

 

9 Comments

  1. Your study is not problematic at all. Actually just by the virtue of such an extraordinary study, you get certain merits – expanding of some of your mental faculties to help you gain better insight.

    The challenge is singular. No one can study and come to a sane conclusion on the taste and different characteristics of honey without knowing its taste first hand. The same way if you want to study Mindfulness you have to go all the way of enlightenment in order to understand this ageless nature.

    Better still if you are fortunate enough to meet an awakened human being or a Buddha that’s the surest way to learn about this elusive subject that even the most educated minds in the universe have no understanding of what it is.

    Mindfulness is the real gold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment and insight 🙂 Of course to be able to study mindfulness in any real way at all, personal practice (and even some background reading) is absolutely essential. The difficulty is finding a balance in producing scientifically rigorous research without reducing mindfulness to an objective academic component. Have a wonderful day and thank you for following the blog!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Kat, this does sound like it’ll be challenging. I’m not familiar with quantitative studies, which is what this sounds like you’re trying to do, but I wonder if you can have separate groups that only participate in one type of mindfullness activity and then compare to the control group.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! Yes, that would be the gold standard of studying mindfulness interventions – when one group does the mindfulness intervention and another group does an intervention that is similar in most ways but without the mindfulness component 🙂 I will of course keep this blog updated with my future research and how I attempt to overcome these challenges. Have a wonderful day!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, I guess I was thinking more like 2-3 different groups. One might do mindfulness in terms of mindful walking, while another does meditation. Anywho, I look forward to seeing how everything unfolds for you.

        Liked by 1 person

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