The Science Of Mindfulness: Where Are We At?

The esteemed Current Opinions in Psychology journal published a special edition on Mindfulness. With a foreword from Jon Kabat-Zinn, and publication edits by Amit Bernstein, David Vago, as well as Thorsten Barnhofer, the edition compiles research papers from over 100 leading scholars, making this the largest field-wide project since the emergence of mindfulness science. We explore the special edition below.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
science of mindfulness
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

More than 100 leading scholars and scientists submitted a total of 57 papers for a special issue on mindfulness published in the Current Opinion in Psychology in September 2019, reflecting the scale and scope of the field of mindfulness. Learn what inspired this manifold collaboration of scholars.

The Diverse Science Of Mindfulness

The goals of the mindfulness issue—edited by Amit Bernstein, PhD, David R. Vago, PhD, and Thorsten Barnhofer, PhDwere to not only showcase existing findings and developments across the field of mindfulness science and practice, but also bring attention to issues and differing standpoints within the field and put the traditional foundations of mindfulness side by side with the “rigor, tools and perspective of psychological and related sciences.” It respectfully acknowledges the origins of mindfulness practice, critically applies the tools and perspective of sciences and explores evidence-backed applications and integrations of mindfulness practices

In the special issue’s foreword, Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, praises the journal’s content saying:

“This is science at its best, broadly open to different ways of knowing, and challenging its own limits, tacit assumptions, and implicit biases.”

The mindfulness issue in Current Opinion in Psychology is organized around four main sections:

  1. Historical and conceptual foundations of mindfulness
  2. The basic science of mindfulness, with three general foci including mechanisms, neural correlates and physical health
  1. The fast-growing clinical applications including measurement innovations, mindfulness-based interventions and instructor training
  1. Social applications including ethics and morality, social equity, sustainability, meaning and spirituality, education, industry and organizational change and public policy

We will be looking at these four sections in more detail in this article series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.

What inspired the publication of a mindfulness-specific issue?

Over the past 40 years, the popularity of mindfulness has grown rapidly, as has the science related to the practice. Before 2000, there were only 39 scientific papers published, yet today there are 6000. A similar rapid development has occurred regarding the innovating effects mindfulness practices and principles have had in different social sectors such as health care, schools and corporate settings.

In their introduction to this special issue, Bernstein, Vago and Barnhofer put the growing scientific and social interest down to a number of factors, such as the “rapidly growing societal stress”, the “growing popular and scientific interest in mind-body interdependence” and the dedication of many scholars and thought leaders to mindfulness meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn summarizes this growth saying:

“The overall thrust of the studies over the past almost 40 years mostly through press reports and popular articles on the subject, influencing the zeitgeist and motivating large numbers of people to systematically observe and befriend their own minds, bodies, and unfolding lives through the systematic cultivation of mindfulness, both formally and informally.”

Nevertheless, the big question arising and leading to this special issue is if the ‘mindfulness boom’ has gotten ahead of its evidence. This collective project is an attempt to create a scientific status quo of extant mindfulness research and open discourses for critical thinking.

The far-reaching applications of mindfulness

While meditation is a popular word now, historically speaking, it’s a very new concept in Western culture. The MBSR program was created by Kabat-Zinn at a mainstream academic medical center hospital only in 1979. “MBSR was a vehicle for bringing mindfulness into American culture through mainstream medicine in ways that felt honest and challenging, and wholly respectful of origins, without being wedded to ‘name and form,’ culture or tradition,” says Kabat-Zinn in the issue’s foreword.

Mindfulness was and still is a practical solution to i.a. stress, anxiety and depression and intertwines evidence-based medicine with daily life. Despite its modern integration into Western culture, Kabat-Zinn reminds us that the practice of repetitively bringing back one’s attention was acknowledged by William James centuries ago in this quote that also opens the journal’s forward:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of oneself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.” — William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

Despite the Western world taking over a century to incorporate William James’ observations into mainstream awareness, the journal highlights that mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) are now trialed in numerous settings and the editors underline that “recent meta-analytic evidence suggests that across common mental health problems, the efficacy of MBIs is equivalent to established treatments.”

Research, however, is never finalized and this special mindfulness issue offers insights into the ongoing work of scholars in the diverse field of MBI’s, including preventing the onset of mental health disorders in school children, countering stress-related physical health conditions linked to inflammation and delaying or preventing dementia in older adults.

Mindfulness needs critical thinking and open discourses

In the issue’s introduction, the researchers Bernstein, Vago and Barnhofer remind readers contemplating mindfulness to “temper excitement and growth with scientific skepticism and caution.” By encouraging critical thinking, they promote the science of mindfulness as a useful tool and helpfully preventing it from falling victim to what many scientific practices encounter such as oversimplification, attempts at commodification, outright cynical exploitation and scientism. The editors explain:

“[We] hoped that the issue could help bring to the fore critical concerns, accurate and tempered interpretations of the extant data, as well as exciting developments across the many domains of contemporary mindfulness science and practice.”

While Kabat-Zinn, who is himself an MBI pioneer, showcases he is aware of differing viewpoints arising from the scientific and social mindfulness discourse and points out: “This special issue is itself evidence that we are now part of an ever-growing, ever-learning, ever-expanding sangha of intentionality and embodied liberation.” He further states:

“Hopefully, this volume will turn up the volume on these conversations as well, for the benefit of all, and perhaps lead to deeper inquiry and a greater understanding and clarity about how the core elements of our humanity may or may not be influenced by such radical acts of love as taking one’s seat, examining what is on one’s mind, questioning one’s attachment to views, unexamined beliefs, and tacit assumptions, recognizing the fundamental interconnectedness of the universe, and resting in awareness itself, outside of time.”

The most social good of mindfulness

While in the past, meditation was confined to the East, the integration of mindfulness in various areas of today’s society, e.g., mobile applications, and applying MBIs as tools to increase the collective wellbeing have made the practice accessible and approachable to more people than ever before. Jon Kabat-Zinn sees this time as an unfolding renaissance of “love of humanity’s beauty and potential when the human mind is willing to know itself in its fullness.”

There is still no question in my mind that we have the potential to ignite a global renaissance catalyzed by the cultivation of mindfulness and heartfulness at this critical juncture in the arc of human evolution and development,” says Kabat-Zinn.

In today’s world, where the US mindfulness market is estimated at $1.1 billion annually, the scientists and authors collaborating in this special issue have seized the moment to showcase the current evidence behind mindfulness. The result is an exceptional array of exploration, applications and analysis of mindfulness.

Bernstein, Vago and Barnhofer see the publishing of this issue as a marker for the science of mindfulness of tomorrow:

“We hoped that bringing together many of the field’s leading scholars could help to guide, challenge, and inspire the next generation of science, practice, and ethical and evidence-based social applications and implementation of mindfulness and, thereby, promote the most social good.”

Bibliography: Learn more by reading each of the articles in Current Opinion in Psychology:

Meditation. Free.