The mindfulness ‘image problem’: measuring effectiveness


Australia21 - head sketchA clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist: the concept and practice differ depending on who you ask about them. Even more confusing are the claims made about the value of mindfulness, because the research suffers from poor methodology.

That’s the conclusion of a review published this week in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, which suggests the hype around mindfulness and meditation is ahead of evidence for its efficacy.

Dr Nicholas Van Dam and Professor Nick Haslam from the University of Melbourne have summed up the review in The Conversation:

The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another.

At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether.

So how do we know whether a quick self-reflection prompted by a smart-phone app on the commute to work is a valid exercise in mindfulness and as valuable as a months-long meditation retreat?

Van Dam and Haslam note that psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, body focus, curiosity, nonjudgmental attitude, focus on the present, and others.

But ways of measuring mindfulness are highly variable, often relying on questionnaires and self-reporting that are vulnerable to biases.

Mindfulness is definitely a useful concept and a promising set of practices. It may help prevent psychological problems and could be useful as an addition to existing treatments. It may also be helpful for general mental functioning and well-being. But the promise will not be realised if problems are not addressed.


Australia21 - health worker measuring blood pressureMapping Australian mindfulness research

It’s a dilemma that Australia21’s innovative Mindful Futures Network is working to address.

“I agree that ‘mindfulness’ research can suffer from poor methodology, with subjective evaluations forming a large proportion of the data collection,” says MFN Founder Dr Lynne Reeder.

“It is important that mindfulness practices are researched and tested for effectiveness – as now neuroscience, medicine and psychology among other disciplines tell us that being able to consciously choose rather than automatically react is a vital human competency.

“It also needs to be acknowledged that there is already solid evidence on the benefits of mindfulness coming from research being done at the world’s premier universities.”

Dr Reeder cites the highly reputable research of Professor Mark Williams and his team at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, including projects on improving the resilience of school children and managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She also points to the success of Jon Kabat Zinn‘s peer-reviewed work through the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, particularly into the effects of Mindful Based Stress Reduction on the brain, the immune system, and healthy emotional expression.

In Australia, the Mindful Futures Network is currently mapping how the science of mindfulness, empathy and compassion is being applied across organisations and systems.

“In part, this is why the Mindful Futures Network has been established – to share research into the best ways to assess the impact of mindfulness, empathy and compassion,” says Dr Reeder.

“We included empathy and compassion because we felt that by itself mindfulness wasn’t enough to change behaviour.”


The Observed Mindfulness Measure

One of the projects recently documented by the Network acknowledges that a valid and reliable measure of observed mindfulness is not currently available.

The Observed Mindfulness Measure (OMM) project, being run by the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, aims to explore the potentially observable effects of mindfulness, as reported by a third party. It could provide a promising new direction for evaluating mindfulness intervention outcomes beyond self-reporting.

Other methods of evaluation that are used as a supplement or alternative to self-reported mindfulness usually involve some form of laboratory-based assessments which are costly and involve significant manipulations. The OMM may become a useful research tool for the field, as it would be scalable for large studies and inexpensive to administer.

Once well validated in research settings, the OMM could also be used more broadly to assess return on investment, provided it relates with social and occupational outcomes that are over and above the mental health and wellbeing of participants.

The OMM project is recruiting participants now.

For further information contact Larissa Bartlett.


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