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.
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.
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?
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).
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.