Is Mindfulness Meditation Science-Based?

Existing research has not yet clearly defined what mindfulness is and what effect it has. The hype clearly has gone beyond the science, and more rigorous research is needed to determine what specific effects there are, if any.

Steven Novella on October 18, 2017

A great deal of electronic ink has been spread on these pages discussing the question of what it means to be science-based. While we have developed and iterated an operational definition, like many complex phenomena there is no sharp demarcation line. Practices occur along a spectrum from rigidly science-based to blatant quackery.

There are plenty of practices, however, that are in the middle. Further, an individual practice can range across the spectrum depending on the claims that are being made for it. “Nutrition” as an approach to health can be rigidly scientific (folate for pregnant women to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects) or pure snake oil (“superfoods” to cure what ails you).

One practice that I think straddles this middle-zone is mindfulness meditation (or just mindfulness). The “dictionary” definition of mindfulness is, “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” But before we get into more detail about this practice, let’s review what we mean by “science-based.”

What is science-based practice?

This, of course, is the core question of Science-Based Medicine and a topic of deep thought by its proponents. I will try to give the quickest definition I can here. SBM acknowledges that medical interventions which are safe and effective are preferred over practices which are unsafe or ineffective. Further, the best way to evaluate practices is by considering all of the available scientific evidence in the most thorough context.

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