Researchers delve into science of mindfulness

The science, hype, and potential for clinical applications are explored in a special issue of Current Opinions in Psychology dedicated to contextualizing an emerging field of empirical research supporting the practice of mindfulness.

The issue brings together contributions and collaboration from over 100 scholars and scientists who have authored a total of 57 papers focusing on the historical and conceptual foundations, the basic science, clinical applications, and social applications. The issue, led by David Vago, PhD, research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, is free to the public for 30 days through October 30.

Mindfulness is commonly described as attention to and awareness of present moment experience and, as an ancient practice, is at the heart of the historical teachings of Buddha. It's more than 25 centuries old, yet in the last two decades there's been a surge of both popular and scientific interest in mindfulness. The rapid advancements in technology allows experts to more accurately understand how mindfulness impacts, or changes, the brain, which is contributing to what is known, according to Vago.

We're at a turning point in this field, Vago said. Before 2000 there were 39 scientific papers published about mindfulness, and today there are more than 6,000 papers.

“It's staggering to think about the how mindfulness practices and interventions have innervated nearly every sector of society including healthcare and schools to corporations, corrections, the government and military, as well as social justice and mobile technology,” said Vago in a statement.

There is a lot of hype around the benefits of mindfulness and it is getting oversold in popular culture relative to the scientific evidence supporting its benefits, Vago said. That's not meant to be discouraging but it is an opportunity for researchers to accurately describe and contextualize how mindfulness can be applied in everyday life, he said.

“We want people to be accurate and tempered about the language around mindfulness,” said Vago. “We want to make sure the approaches that people are taking accurately reflect what the science says.”

Researchers are beginning to understand how mindfulness can be learned and applied uniquely across different contexts. For example, being taught to maintain a state of mindfulness for five to ten minutes in a controlled environment is going to have unique effects relative to an advanced practitioner who has been training formerly with over 15,000 hours of mediation time. Both practices may have effects on health outcomes, but in unique ways that the science is just starting to reveal.

There are several apps that encourage mindfulness, which are a point of interest for researchers as they continue to trend among consumers. Vago said that any sort of tool that can facilitate awareness about one's own mental habits is going to be a good thing.

“My personal feeling is that mobile apps are an excellent platform for delivering content,” he said. “The jury is out to what extent apps are effective.”

A rigorous evidence-base is emerging to optimize delivery of mindfulness training for select populations. In today’s fast-paced society, it's not convenient or feasible to go to a monastery for three years or even three months to learn mindfulness from master teachers, Vago said. Rather, science is helping determine what are the active ingredients of these practices and improve efficiency with which skills are trained. Slowly, Vago said researchers are approaching a level of precision to best understand which practices will work by which mechanisms and which individuals will benefit.

Vago said evidence-based mindfulness is a young field with promising preliminary data. He adds that contemporary eight-week mindfulness-based interventions and historical paths for mental stabilization, insight, and awakening should be treated as distinct forms of training with unique effects on health outcomes.

“There is a lot of confusion in the general public and scientific community about which studies are accurate and generalizable,” Vago said. “The papers allow the scientists and scholars the opportunity to describe subtle aspects of the data that are not immediately apparent or how best to interpret what the science is reporting.”