The assumption of every magazine or scientific article I’ve read on the benefits of mindful meditation seems to be that a little mindfulness training would be good for absolutely everyone. But are we right to assume that everyone walks away with the same benefits from a mindfulness intervention?
The most compelling evidence for the advantages of mindfulness comes from experiments using the “silver standard” of psychology,random assignment of volunteers to meditation instruction or some control condition. (The “gold standard” would be a double-blind study, but it’s kind of impossible for people not to know they were taught how to meditate). When we see that the meditation group outperforms the control group, we can be quite confident that the difference is due to the meditation training, not some unknown other influence.
What these studies tend to gloss over, though, is that the meditation group outperforms the control group on average, and those averages hide the individual experiences of each volunteer. It is quite possible to have a meditation group with two students who experience life-improving moments of insight, one student who suffers a psychological disturbance from their time on the cushion, and an average of slight but compelling advantage to meditation. Hidden inside the average of every meditation group may be a few people who received no benefits from a mindfulness program, even a few whose depression/empathy/attention actually declined, for whatever reason.
So although there’s a lot of evidence out there now that mindfulness meditation can help with many things, there’s no guarantee it will help everyone. And the new question for scientists becomes: who is more likely to walk out of a meditation program better off than when they walked in?
It may not be surprising – but it should give proponents of mindfulness some pause – that the people who benefit most from mindfulness practice may be those who are already fairly mindful to begin with.
Some recent evidence of this comes from a study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, which investigated how mindfulness might help people maintain their balance. Volunteers stood on one leg on a special plate (a more sophisticated version of the Wii Fit balance board), then moved their hand backward and forward in a pool of water for 6 minutes, and then stood on one leg again. The key manipulation was that half of the volunteers received instructions and reminders to pay attention to how the water felt on their hand, and half were just told to keep their hand moving.
The attempts to induce mindful awareness didn’t seem to have any benefit to the volunteers’ balance…until the researchers considered how mindful the volunteers were to begin with, as measured by their answers on the Mindful Awareness Attention Scale. If people were less mindful to begin with, the attempts to make them mindful didn’t do them any good. But if people were already disposed to be mindful, then a reminder to be mindful and to pay attention to their hand in the water carried over and helped them significantly improve their balance.
Even more interesting is that if people were disposed to be mindful and stuck in seemingly purposeless task (just move your hand back and forth in the water), their balance actually got worse. This struck me as a contradiction at first; I like to think of myself as a fairly mindful person, and I like to believe that I’d pay attention to the feel of the water or the task of balancing as a reflex, regardless of what some researcher told me to do. But that may be a difference of someone who makes a deliberate practice of mindfulness (me), and someone with no formal background in mindfulness who just happens to be more self-aware than average (the “high mindful” volunteers).
In sum, people who are generally inclined to be mindful might benefit from reminders to be mindful – and even be hurt by non-mindful situations of they don’t make it mindful themselves. This makes a pretty good argument for getting them into a meditation program where they can develop their mindfulness and learn to apply it to a broad range of activities. On the other hand, if people aren’t naturally mindful, then just telling them to “be mindful” or giving them a quick practice at mindfulness probably won’t do them any good. We can still hope that the typical 8-week mindfulness program could help them, by changing their inclination to be mindful, but we shouldn’t take that for granted.
To be fair, there are several valid concerns about this study that beg for corroborating evidence: it’s based on an unusual mindfulness treatment (instructions to be pay attention to how their hand felt while they moved it in a pool of water for 6 minutes), and an unusual outcome measure (their ability to remain stable while standing on one leg for 30 seconds), and the authors don’t give an adequate description of how they decided people had a “low” or “high” disposition to mindfulness. But it takes the important first step of asking who benefits, instead of just assuming a mindfulness intervention will help everyone equally. We need more studies to do the same.
Kee YH, Chatzisarantis N, Kong PW, Chow JY, & Chen LH (2012). Mindfulness, movement control, and attentional focus strategies: Effects of mindfulness on a postural balance task. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 34, 561-579. PMID: 23027228