UMass Medical School Creates First Division of Mindfulness

As the bar for research on mindfulness raises dramatically, a big change at the University of Massachusetts unites top-tier minds with increased resources to study meditation’s therapeutic potential.

Illustration by Ana Bustelo

Marking unprecedented support for the role of mindfulness in health care, the University of Massachusetts Medical School announced in December the creation of a new division dedicated to its academic study. The Division of Mindfulness, the first of its kind, encompasses the university’s existing Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, started by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1980s. Within a medical school, a “division” indicates that an area, such as endocrinology or psychiatry, is designated as something requiring long-term focused study in order to develop increasingly more effective treatments.

By creating “the infrastructure to support researchers and clinicians to further the scientific knowledge of mindfulness and of how the mind works,” this new designation greatly increases the opportunities for research (as well as sources of funding for such research) and in supporting the application of mindfulness in the health fields and beyond, explains new division chief Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at the school and director of research at the center.

Likening the development to when “a teenager comes of age and leaves the house,” Brewer explained that the decision to establish an entire medical division dedicated to mindfulness is in many ways the natural next step for an area that’s grown exponentially over the past four decades. “This really highlights how far the field has progressed and matured,” he said.

Remarking that the notion of a medical school division dedicated to studying the impact of meditation was “virtually inconceivable” when he and others began doing this work, Kabat-Zinn was clearly pleased. “That this has come about is diagnostic of a new and increasingly widespread recognition of the deep potential synergies between the domains of medicine and meditation…as well as recognition of the challenges involved in maintaining and optimizing human well-being and health across the lifespan.

“We are now understanding the seamless interconnectedness of brain, mind, body, experience, and well-being,” he added. This show of support for furthering the inquiry “has the potential to inform the development of increasingly effective targeted clinical programs under the umbrella of a far more participatory model of medicine and health care.”

For Brewer and his team—which will be expanding thanks to increased funding designed to attract the best researchers and clinicians in the field—the possibilities are exciting.

On the neuroscience front, Brewer said, they will work to refine and confirm “hypotheses on the mechanisms of action”—in other words, actually testing targeted scientific theories of how and why mindfulness works in specific ways and in specific instances—instead of the more exploratory models commonly employed now.

In the clinical realm, he anticipates increasing the number of “efficacy studies that refine treatment and training” in mindfulness interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

And he says he’s particularly excited about the development of “novel treatments,” including digital therapeutics, which is already a focus in his lab, as well as opportunities for greater collaboration.

When asked whether this change raises the bar to “prove” the benefits of mindfulness, Brewer said it’s important for the division to be the “standard-bearer on not overhyping” what mindfulness can—and what it can’t—do: “There’s plenty that’s true! It doesn’t help anyone to overhype anything.”

This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Mindful magazine. Subscribe to the digital issue of Mindful to get immediate access to the April issue.
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