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Where's the Proof That Mindfulness Works? (scientificamerican.com)
54 points by xriddle 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

As someone who has meditated 20 years, 2-4 hours per day and participated in long retreats 7 days to month, I have always been skeptical about this "mindfulness business". It has it's roots in old meditation traditions, but they were never supposed to bee quick fix, relaxation or therapy.

Many therapy methods work well with the therapist who developed it, but don't give good results when packaged into programs and courses. Kabat-Zinn is experienced meditator and I'm not surprised if his therapy works when he is involved. He has so much personal experience. Meditation traditions transfer their knowledge to the next generation trough training regime that takes decades. It's not (yet) science that can be transferred trough short courses and readings.

I have instructed newcomers in meditation. If they have mental problems I suggest they seek therapy and do little meditation on the side. Meditation can help, but I have also seen meditation induced psychosis several times when people see it as the cure for everything. Many experienced meditator's go to normal therapy to deal with their mental problems and find it useful. Some use medication.

My experience is that people with mental problems benefit more from concentrative meditation that builds one-pointedness and calmness, than pure mindfulness type awareness meditation that brings problems into the consciousness. Build strength before facing your inner dragons.

My experience (personal and from a few friends) is that there's a step function. A small amount of initial meditation gives some immediate benefit. Continuing to do that same thing yields little more. Further benefit takes a much larger effort until new plateau.

Specifically, I think there's definite short-term benefit to be had from small amounts of relaxation-oriented meditation, and from the common teaching "don't identify with the feeling" ("I am angry" vs "I notice anger is present"), allowing some freedom in reaction different from acting out the emotion that is felt.

Strongly agree with this. It'd be nice to see some studies tackle this angle.

> Kabat-Zinn is experienced meditator and I'm not surprised if his therapy works when he is involved.

Isn't the premise of MBSR, mindfulness? What in your opinion, is the delta that makes such therapies different than plain mindfulness?

The author seems to discuss "mindfulness" like a generic thing, mentions trials without actually referencing them or diving into the details in order to consider their validity, and finishes the article mentioning that "it's a personal experience".

Quite unworthy article of HN front page in my opinion, besides the possible interesting discussion that might arise based on it.

You could wait for the research to be conclusive, or you could dive in right now and radically improve your life.

I recommend starting with the free short book, Mindfulness In Plain English - http://www.wisdompubs.org/sites/default/files/preview/Mindfu...

That's kind of begging the question, though. The question is, will diving in radically improve my life?

I'm not saying it won't, by the way. I myself practice something that some might consider to be mindfulness. But you are assuming facts not in evidence, as a lawyer might say.

Evidence is hard to get due to variables in such studies. You have to observe people's daily routine for a long period of time, which gets to be expensive. You also cannot fool the subject, or the people monitoring progress, so there's no way to do such studies double-blind.

For these reasons studies on nutrition are also hard and mostly flawed. But do we need a study to tell us that sugar is poison?

Well, ok, we do, but we can also notice our grandparents weren't eating that much sugar, they weren't suffering that much from obesity or diabetes and that's enough for me.

I'm sorry but why on earth would you accept a vague almost anecdotal correlation, while rejecting scientifically conducted nutrition studies?

I'll grant you that nutritional science is hard, but surely holding studies to a lower standard isn't a logical solution?

I'll grant you the note of our grandparent's diets, but I don't think it's analogous. Were our grandparents also more mindful? Perhaps I'm missing your point.

I seem to be missing it too. You don't need mindfulness to be on a particular diet, or to avoid sugar, or obesity.

I love this book so much that I bought the paperback edition. Practicing and following its advice has helped me improve my general mood and outlook over the past year.

The past year being one of the most difficult of my life. For me, I see direct evidence of the techniques personally in that it has been reducing the impact anxiety has on me when it occurs.

Its also been improving my ability to: 1) be 'present' and not have anxiety come up as often to begin with, 2) quickly address/resolve the anxiety when it does occur, using the techniques

In what concrete ways will life improve?

Also, the premise of that book is wrong (that no human is content).

you could probably get here various ways but the practice of refocusing on my breath as I get caught in thinking/fantasy/etc over and over again really trained me in daily life to sort of snap out of certain situations in order to evaluate.

like if i'm in an argument w/ my wife i'm better equipped to pause and try to figure out what is really happening even as the argument occurs.

i hate flying. after meditating for a year or so i would fly and still be scared but would able to sit and experience fear and watch it. see what it does to my body, my stomach, breathing, etc. doing this didn't completely remove the fear but it made it interesting.

haven't really meditated for a very long time but it did help me.

If this is what mindfulness could do for me I'm doubtful it's something I need; I think I have found other ways in which much the same is achieved. E.g., I've never found difficulty in disconnecting or disengaging from situations, from the moment, nor difficulty in observing my physiological and psychological responses. I immediately recognize people who are unable to perform such separation; they are too caught up in the moment to be able to observe it.

When you say "I get caught in thinking/fantasy/etc," what exactly are you referring to?

I like thinking, and I think a lot; but of course, I've recognized that some thoughts are useless, some are unproductive, and some are harmful. I've trained myself to get rid of those, and I've also made sure to have room for the thoughts I do want. Not only have I made room, but I have techniques and rules I live by which increases the interval at which these thoughts I do want occur.

By getting caught I mean that during meditation I am trying to focus all attention on the breath but inevitably I begin thinking of something else or I start daydreaming or fantasizing. The mind wanders. When you realize your mind has wandered away from the breath you bring it back.

Sometimes this can be a jarring experience. Like suddenly waking from a dream.

Engaging in mindfulness implies changing what you think about, or, where your focus is. This can be therapeutic to persons who are suffer from anxiety and depression because it interrupts periods where negative thoughts dominate their consciousness and replaces them with periods where their thoughts focused on current circumstances that are generally benign or pleasant.

For persons who don't benefit from such therapy, mindfulness could mean re-focusing away from the abstract thinking that solves problems or invents or creates. Many people deliver their work product or improve their circumstances through this type of thinking. Practicing mindfulness may negatively impact them by reducing the amount of time they spend contemplating in such areas.

> For persons who don't benefit from such therapy, mindfulness could mean re-focusing away from the abstract thinking that solves problems or invents or creates. Many people deliver their work product or improve their circumstances through this type of thinking. Practicing mindfulness may negatively impact them by reducing the amount of time they spend contemplating in such areas.

I understand where you're coming from with this, as I used to also hold this (very logical) opinion. However, after meditating and engaging with Buddhist philosophy for many years, I've never felt negatively impacted in this way. I now view this opinion as resulting from an overly-simplified understanding of mindfulness.

Just as easily I could argue that being more mindful can mean becoming more aware of the anxiety that is present, and that clearing one's mind leaves more room for clear analytical thought. I think you are analyzing from an armchair, not from a meditation cushion.

That is why the tradition emphasizes constantly that "you are not your thoughts." Putting some distance between you and your anxiety helps address it as the meaningless reflex that it is.

> This can be therapeutic to persons who are suffer from...

The lack of rigorous scientific support for this assertion is the entire point of this article (and the journal article it summarizes).

I frequently hear an argument against these practices that they're just a placebo. But wouldn't that actually be an argument for it? If the placebo makes you believe that you have less stress and greater stillness, I don't see how that's different from "really" having less stress. Which means it's not a placebo but really works.

Just a food for thought. In any case aside from the endless and consistent anecdotal evidence, there is a science to it


The placebo effect operates on the domain of perception. In other words, placebo is a psychological effect, which may deceive a patient into perceiving that he or she is getting better even though the sugar pills they just took had no physiological response from the body.

Stress has a big psychological component, but it is also something that can be physilogically seen and can be measured. It's important to see the distinction between the psychological perception and the true physiology.

Stress may not be the best example because as stated, stress has a lot to with the psychological state.

Stress reduction is one of the few goals of mindfulness though, so it has to be an example.

Videos of monks performing self-immolation are enough proof to me.

These monks practice mindfulness meditation for decades, and as a result, they have such control over their minds that they are literally able to "ignore" the pain of being on fire and sit still through the entire duration.

And that is proof of what ? That some forms of mindfulness can overcome some physical or mental stimuli ? I think this can cause an increase in self-destructive behaviour as much as affirmative ones (as your example shows). Why would that be proof of the positive mental effects ? (I think it's what this general discussion is about at least.)

It at the very least shows that mindfulness gives you more control of your reaction to your thoughts. A normal human being gets constantly bombarded by random thoughts, a lot of them negative, and it tends to affect his or her behavior. Mindfulness teaches you to be more aware of your thoughts and gives you the choice of allowing them to affect how you behave or not.

I'm pretty sure I could do that too without much practice. Assuming it was an intentional choice, anyway.

Your body can only handle so much pain before it basically shuts off, and then you don't feel much of anything. The real pain comes later, when you're healing.

Not going to test it out though.

Go stick your finger over a flame right now and hold it there until you can't feel it any more.

No, you wouldn't be able to do that. They burn themselves to death.

Burning to death only hurts briefly, when the nerves have had enough damage you can't feel. Adrenaline helps block pain, as well. Besides, self-immolation is not exclusive to those who have practiced mindfulness.

Ever had a severe accident, like a motorcycle accident, or been ran over by a car? The pain comes after, not in the moment when the trauma occurs.

Yes, the pain is only there before your nerves get burnt out, but even just a minute of being burned alive is enough to make any normal human being, including you and me, react involuntarily to the pain.

And yes, I have been in high pain incidents. I recall the pain happening during and after.

Yes, I know what it is. And yes, I think I could do it.

And I think I could fly, but I'm not going to try. See how that works?

I've been working two full-time jobs for more than a year now while maintaining a bi-phasic sleep schedule.

Think what you wish, but sitting there in pain for a few minutes while my life ends (by my own accord) doesn't seem all that difficult comparatively.

I take on very hard tasks daily, and sustain work on them for a lot longer than three minutes.

Don't make me challenge you to a vipassana, friendo.

Does your work normally involve very high levels of physical pain that would make any normal human scream at the top of their lungs?

Yes, I work in IT.

Why do people put monks on such a pedestal?

Which part of your IT infrastructure inflicts physical pain?


Your previous comment is about procrastinating for 6.5 hours every day while dreaming of changing careers.

You realize not everyone has the luxury of living like that, right?

I know right !

I wonder if it is the case that mindfulness is helpful for certain types of people, ineffective with others, and actually harmful with some people. Maybe all the effects cancel out when you do a study with a large sample, and that is why it seems to be ineffective.

That google guy who wrote the book disagrees:


p.s. book is worth read IMO.

Frankly a lot of times "mindfulness" seems backwards. If I'm upset about something happening in the present, absolute focus on the present seems like not really the best approach, and I don't think indulging in thinking about the future or reminiscing about the past are really features you need to beat out of yourself. Also I was talked into reading the Power of Now and it's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read.

Embracing and experiencing emotions in the present moment is exactly what the concept of mindfulness aims to teach. Repression of emotions is widely considered an ineffective strategy of coping with negative circumstances.

Stress and depression and other mental health conditions are determined much more by concerns about the past or future, questioning why or how things have or will happen. That's not to say that these are unreasonable thoughts...but for afflicted people, they can become consumed by these thoughts. If people wanted to become monks and completely live in the present, that's their choice. But striking a balance is probably a more reasonable goal for someone with aspirations of success...or whatever.

I don't know what people feel or do when meditating this way. But one thing I felt in the last years is that our mind is a bit two-part. One feels, the other kinda decide to focus or amplify that. Meditating is a bit like relaxing the second and avoiding vicious feedback loops.

Well, like I said, I just read the one book by a famous proponent, but the focus was much more on dissociating yourself from your emotions.

If one feels anger and is not mindful or "present", one is likely to act angrily.

If instead one feels anger and is mindful about it, one acknowledges the anger but keeps room to decide how to act. This seems to me an improvement.

(As I mentioned above, you go from "I'm angry!" to "I notice there is anger present" and that non-identification leaves room to decide how to act. Sure, this is harder with emotions that go on a long time, e.g. being 'OK" with the presence of anxiety.)

"Absolute focus" and true constant mindfulness is a thing for advanced meditators that you won't get from 20 minutes a day.

That seems like old-fashioned self-restraint. One frustration of this stuff is the difficulty in pinning down exactly what the claims are.

To me, saying "it's hard to pin down what the claims for meditation are" is a bit like saying "it's hard to pin down what the claims for psychiatry are". Meditation comes in several flavors and within the flavors is practiced in very different ways. The top level claim is "this will make you feel better" but when you try to verify that you're going to have to restrict it to something narrow that doesn't represent the whole thing.

The self-restraint aspect of mindfulness is one superficial outcome of the practice, one which I think emerges quickly if you engage with mindfulness. It's not the whole thing.

But I don't mean "meditation" in general -- even if you look at one person's claims, you think you have it and then you voice a disagreement and, whoops, you haven't understood it, or else you wouldn't criticize it.

If the idea behind these techniques is to combat the natural response of hiding the problems and actively reckoning them, your argument doesn't seem to offer a rebuttal of that counter-intuitive proposal, you're just saying it's bad.

Well, if the Power of Now is to be believed, "actively reckoning" with your problems is also bad and you should instead respond like a smiling fool to absolutely anything that happens (among other things he suggests that menstruation can be turned into a joyful expression of womanhood if only you let go of your "pain body" and "egoic mind," elements of the human psyche he also blames for the Nazis).

Lame, depends on what you mean and how it's studied.


What would it mean for it to "work"?

What would such proof look like?

(Self-reports of well-being? Seems wrong)

That's what the original paper is kind of about. The Scientific American piece is a little misleading to me, because it implies the paper is about lack of evidence, when I think the original paper is a bit deeper than that, and about definitional issues and so forth. I think the original authors might say that it's about the need to figure out what exactly is working when it does, and what works and what doesn't.

Self-reports of well-being are important, because self-perceived well-being is so important to the construct. I'm not saying other perspectives aren't important, but think of it this way: if you thought you were severely lacking in well-being, but others thought you weren't, would you want others to ignore your own perspective on that?

Well I'm not an expert in the domain but I'd wager there's models for what happiness is, from which you can determine how to measure that. For example if you thinks it's a variable composed of self-appreciation and appreciation of others you can have a good estimate with a properly-designed study.

Why would that seem wrong ? Because it could miss cases where people don't know their own happiness ? I think a model based on actual observations is more right than a hypothetical transcendental happiness. Because people could lie ? That's where the proper design of the experiment steps in.

This is off the top of my head.

Do it yourself and verify. If it works for you, then great! Otherwise move on. Most of the drugs recommended by doctors and FDA also don't work. But people are still trying them out. :)

Try it.

That seems to me like little more than an appeal to tradition. I suppose the argument goes “if Buddhists didn't benefit from their mindfulness, Buddhism wouldn't have lasted so long” ? That hardly seems falsifiable because it relies on historical evolution of communities correlated to a one-parameter model of individuals. Other factors could play a bigger role in the correlation.

What are you implying? That the fact that Buddhism exists means mindfulness is an effective way of dealing with stress and pain? You could say the same of alcohol or Christianity or depression.

Do you know of cases where people have to be counseled for harmful effects of meditation?

Well, it isn't scientific proof, at least.

Worked for acupuncture, right? Buddhism can be incredibly superstitious and anything associated with it requires skepticism.

Thousands of years of Buddhism isn't midnfullness therapy.

Found the Guru

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