What We Really Know (About Mindfulness)

Lovely image, nothing to do with the book in question

Lovely image, nothing to do with the book in question

There have been a lot of studies published on mindfulness and meditation. Like, a real lot. In fact, there were more studies published every month in the year 2017 than in all the years leading up to 2002, making for a whopping total of nearly 7,000 published studies on meditation and mindfulness in the past twenty-odd years.

(For a quick explanation of the terms mindfulness and meditation, click here.)

That’s a lot of studies. And nearly all of them claim to say something important about what mindfulness does. Problem is, a lot of these studies make claims based on shabby methods, small sample sizes, or both. A great way to make big headlines, but a poor way to advance science.

So what if we took only the very, very best of the published studies? What if we only looked at studies that have solid methods, that use an active control, that include a biomarker, that set up a gold-standard design, and that are published in top tier journals that carefully peer review the work?

Well, two of my personal heroes, Richie Davidson and Dan Goleman, set out to do just that in their recently published magnum opus Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. In the book, Richie and Dan share a lot of personal stories about the winding road they took to becoming two world-renowned experts on the science of meditation, but the real meat of the work, at least for me, is the science they so carefully cull to draw hard-hitting, conservative, and still very interesting conclusions.

(For more on why I think Richie is so cool, click here.)

In a nutshell, after sorting through the thousands of published studies on mindfulness and meditation, Richie and Dan are left with just a scant few hundred that they feel stand up to the scientific rigors listed above. In throwing out the other 6,000 or so, they throw out a lot of the biggest, boldest claims about what mindfulness and meditation can do. Still, in my view, they leave us with conclusions that we can count on, and that is a great service to the field.

So what are these conclusions? Well, according to Richie and Dan, and the few hundred of the best scientific studies to date, we can say with quite a lot of confidence that meditation:

1.     Lowers stress
2.     Increases attention regulation
3.     Elevates mood
4.     Decreases inflammation
5.     Decreases depression and anxiety
6.     And (my personal favorite) increases love

Over the next six weeks, I’ll unpack these findings with some stories and observations from my own life and meditation practice, a few descriptions of the coolest studies done to date, and a hefty dose of probably unwarranted editorializing. Stay tuned. It should be fun.

For information about upcoming mindfulness workshops with Devon & me, please click here.

Craig Hase