3 Reasons Why Meditation Isn’t Overrated

Scientific American declared: the practice is overrated because the science is scant. Here's why that doesn't add up. 

Is Meditation Overrated?” appeared on the Scientific American website last week, making the argument that the scientific evidence for meditation’s “widely-touted benefits” was “scant.” Author Melinda Moyer showcased a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that reviewed 18,000 studies on meditation and concluded there was only “moderate evidence that mindfulness meditation alleviates pain, anxiety and depression.”

While Moyer makes her claim based on one piece of research—which is problematic in any field, let alone science—her claims touch on a huge issue in mindfulness research at this juncture: what’s it doing? Where’s it going? Where are we at? Here’s three points we’d like to make about mindfulness science today.

1. It’s true. We’re not quite there yet, folks.

Here’s the thing. Even people working on mindfulness research will admit that research about meditation—its benefits, how it works—is still in the preliminary stages. But they’re not suggesting we abandon the project. It means we have to be aware of just that: it’s a project. A work in progress.

“The biggest [scientific] advances that we’ve had have really been over the last ten years,” David Creswell, Director of Health & Human Performance Laboratory Carnegie Mellon University, told Mindful. Although clinical trials of 8-week mindfulness training programs have been going on since the 70’s, Creswell says most scientific investigations of mindfulness didn’t surface until 2003 or 2006. “That means that we’re really at the front end of this science of mindfulness.”

In simple terms, Creswell’s research looks at the neural mechanisms of mindfulness to see how they can improve our well-being. He admits, “As far as looking at functional brain mechanisms, we’re just at the very beginning.”

2. The science has to catch up with the enthusiasm.

Even Mark Williams, co-founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a well-known program for treating depression, has admitted that we’re not quite there yet. He told The Guardian:

There’s a lot of hype around mindfulness and we need to be cautious because it doesn’t serve our science or patients well if we’re overenthusiastic. We have to make sure the science catches up with the enthusiasm.

Williams is director of the Oxford Mindfulness Center, which is raising funds to expand its research into using MBCT for depression. But his credentials extend beyond the lab: The Oxford Mindfulness Center just helped launch an All-Party Parliamentary group on mindfulness in the UK.

While the JAMA study, and Scientific American, astutely underscore that some leaps are being made, it’s easy to see how those leaps are actually being supported by people and research. As another example, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin—led by Neurobiologist Richard Davidson, an expert on the emotional brain—just received an $8 million National Institutes of Health grant to continue their meditation research over the next five years.

3. Even the pioneer of the mindfulness movement calls this a “1000-year project.”

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited chronically ill patients not responding well to traditional treatments to participate in his newly formed 8-week stress-reduction program. Now, 35 years later, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and its offshoots have entered the mainstream of health care, scientific study, and public policy.

Kabat-Zinn talked to Mindful about why mindfulness has attracted so much attention and why it will continue to do so. In terms of the scope of mindfulness research, he says “Something that was not on the research map at all a few decades ago is a prime area of interest now.” As a result, more and more scientists are considering mindfulness as a legitimate object of scientific study, and are now coming up the ranks:

Young neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are building their careers in what’s now called contemplative neuroscience. Ten years ago that may well have been a career-ending choice.

You can read more about Kabat-Zinn’s insights into the integration of the practice and science of mindfulness in Mindful‘s feature, “No Blueprint, Just Love.”

So if we’re honest about what we want out of the mindfulness movement, we need to concede that an immense amount of work still needs to be done. As Mindful‘s Editor-in-Chief, Barry Boyce, wrote in his editorial in the June 2014 issue:

[We have to ] cite promising research but don’t overstate it. Science moves slowly. Research into mindfulness is in its early stages, and results are promising, but much more work needs to be done. Science and cheerleading don’t mix.