Are We Being Mindless About Mindfulness?

Mindfulness hype has out-paced mindfulness science.

Posted Mar 13, 2019

One concept that is getting much play recently is ‘meta-cognition,’ which refers to our ability to reflect on our own mind processes. This extraordinary ability, emerging gradually beginning in early childhood, enables the dual core processes that define humanity: nuanced self-awareness and complex social commerce. It is also the foundation of our capacity to learn (which is important since we depend heavily on learning for survival). To wit: If you fail to solve a problem, figuring out the faults in your problem-solving strategy is helpful, since adjusting the strategy improves your odds of future success. Likewise, realizing that you have misjudged a certain social interaction because you are, say, stressed may help you re-calibrate your response, resulting in a better relational outcome. This ability to observe, understand, and tweak (as needed) our internal architecture to both self and social ends is the essence of meta-cognition

Scholarly interest in meta-cognition has grown rapidly since the concept was first fleshed out in the late 1970s by Stanford University researcher John Flavell. Today, it is a coin of the realm for educators, teachers, and memory and cognitive researchers alike. A specific meta-cognitive practice that has been gaining much currency of late in mental health circles is the exercise of mindfulness, which requires one to observe one’s internal landscape and processes with dispassionate curiosity, as would a scientist.

 CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Mindfulness of this sort is not identical to ‘savoring our experience,’ a staple (and useful in its own right) recommendation from the field of positive psychology. Savoring calls for us to direct our attention to the pleasing aspects of an experience in order to appreciate and absorb them fully. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves paying close attention to everything, pleasant or unpleasant.

Likewise, mindfulness is not an effort to ‘quiet the mind.’ Rather, it calls for observing the mind, noise and all. Mindfulness is also not akin to relaxation training, which has traditionally been used in cognitive-behavioral therapy protocols for treating stress and anxiety disorders. Relaxation is a form of directed intervention aimed at reducing muscle tension. Mindfulness practice involves the ability to behold internal mayhem up close sans engagement.

In other words, the mindfulness mindset lets you hear the salesman’s pitch and appreciate his skill without feeling compelled to buy anything and without assuming that what he’s selling is inherently worthwhile. Mindfulness thus implies an ability to let go of two primary temptations: the need to believe and the need to control.

One potential benefit of this practice is that it introduces (or reinforces) the notion that we are not our mind events; that our thoughts and feelings of the moment are aspects of our internal landscape, not the whole of it. Moreover, our interpretations and impressions do not represent inherent factual (or permanent) truths. They are mind events, not world events. The mind, in a sense, is akin to a society, in which multiple constituencies and agendas interact, even compete. It is one thing, but also many different things. Many social interpretations and impressions—even ones that are popular or voiced loudly—are still factually inaccurate. Likewise thoughts and feelings. When you tell yourself, "I'm stupid" or when you feel that 'all is lost,' you are rarely factually right. 

Realizing that our inner experience often amounts to mere noise rather than accurate signal can be sobering, and useful. After all, mistaking noise for signal (and vice versa) leads to decision-making errors. Moreover, acquainting ourselves through mindfulness practice with our own internal algorithms—our cognitive and emotional patterns and habits—may help us, over time, to deactivate (or fix) the ones that are dated or distorted and become more strategic, creative, and successful problem solvers.

The second, related benefit of mindfulness is a potential reduction in physiological (and emotional) reactivity. Our tendency toward high reactivity (through the activation of our nervous system's 'fight-or-flight' response) is rooted in our evolutionary past, in which—given the high-risk environment—strong reactions to perceived threats were useful for survival. Our fight-or-flight system is designed therefore for short bursts of intense activation, of the kind that will help you escape a predator, or chase down prey.

Our current environment, however, is radically different from our evolutionary one. Most of the readers of this column do not live under persistent mortal danger. Moreover, the (relatively recent) evolution of human language has helped create a complex inner landscape—our psychology—that is populated in part by free-roaming ghosts of threats in the form of associations and anticipations. The words ‘poisonous snake’ activate us, even though they cannot actually bite. And while actual snakes may eventually disappear from our environment, the word ‘snake’ is always accessible in our mind. Our ancient alarm system, mismatched as it is with our current environment, is therefore prone to react too often, too strongly, and for too long in situations that pose no real danger. As the stress researcher Robert Sapolsky puts it:

”We humans are smart enough to make ourselves sick with thoughts, emotions, and memories—and we Westernized humans live long enough for the consequences to eventually haunt us big-time.” Reducing this kind of chronic, ill-adapted reactivity is useful, and the practice of mindfulness may facilitate it, thus stabilizing mood and reducing anxiety.

The mechanisms by which mindfulness of this sort may accomplish such results are not yet well understood. But it’s likely that to some extent mindfulness amounts to de-facto exposure practice. If so, then remaining present with (rather than avoiding) our mind events, even the most scary or chaotic ones, may cause our responses to change through the dual action of habituation (whereby repeated exposure to a stimulus eliminates nervous system excitation, and thus erases the fear reaction), and inhibitory learning (whereby a new benign meaning competes successfully with the original threat association for retrieval and activation).

Mindfulness practice, then, has much to recommend it, and much initial research on its effectiveness in therapy has been encouraging. Yet good clinical outcome research is notoriously difficult to carry out. In a nutshell, well-controlled laboratory experiments suffer from reduced external, ecological (‘real world’) validity. Life is not a lab, and lab results may not translate well into real life results. On the other hand, more naturalistic inquiries lack the ability to control for confounding influences and tease apart actual cause and effect relations. People who take to mindfulness practice may differ in some other systematic way from people who don’t, and that difference—rather than the mindfulness practice itself—may account for their differing outcomes. The science of mindfulness as a tool of therapy is therefore bound to progress slowly. This may not be an inherent problem, but it becomes a problem as the idea of mindfulness as therapy makes its way through the culture at large.

U.S. culture is, if nothing else, dominated by an ethos of marketing and hype. The mental health realm has never been exempt from the influence of this cultural trait. Fads (and profit motives) exist everywhere, including in the field of mental health. Thus it is not surprising that mindfulness is presently receiving the usual marketing-and-hype treatment.

The process goes something like this: A raw new idea presents a tantalizing promise of some betterment. In short order, it receives a makeover and is made up to look attractive and unblemished; it then gets stripped down into sound bite (or podcast) form and wrapped in shiny self-improvement packaging. Its promise and benefits are oversold as the popular press fans the hype with strong headlines about “proof“ backed by weak, cherry-picked, or sloppy science evidence.

(Side note: there’s no ‘proof’ in the social sciences, only ‘support.’ To approach a status of de facto ‘proof,’ the support needs to be robust, replicable, and replicated via multiple methods and measures. If you read a social science article that speaks of 'proof,' run).

By this point, the actual science has fallen far behind the pace of sales, its cautions and qualifications obscured by slick PR sloganeering. The idea, now in its diluted, easy to digest, made-for-TV form, is then pushed forcefully into every imaginable (and unimaginable) market niche from which profit may be eked out (mindfulness protocols for dogs, mindfulness apps for your baby, mindfulness meditation for fighting global warming, etc.). By now, it has already lost its original form and meaning and has morphed into a buzzword, a status signal, a sales pitch, and an increasingly tired and hollow cliché. Before long, the inevitable pushback and ridicule arrive.

By the time the cycle is complete, much heat has been generated, but little light. A few people have made much money. And many people have spent way too much money. The public has become tired and bored with the old disappointing idea, and everyone is ready for the new one. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Moreover, even sans all this nonsense, and under the best of circumstances, it is a well-known fact of clinical psychology that new therapy techniques and approaches often follow a path of diminishing returns. Interventions that appear (and perhaps are) powerful at first, lose steam after a time. Perhaps this happens because the early novelty, and the excitement it generates, wear off. Perhaps ‘second wave’ practitioners are less excited or talented than the pioneers, and ‘second wave’ clients are less expectantly optimistic about the technique (expectations of change in therapy are good predictors of actual change). Perhaps it takes time for the weaknesses to appear or be reported accurately. 

Either way, it appears that the early promise of mindfulness as a tool of therapy is ripe for some reckoning. At the least, more and better data are needed if we are to flesh out the actual uses and benefits of this technique. This does not mean that therapists need to abandon the use of mindfulness with their clients. Mindfulness is inexpensive to learn and practice. The risks and negative side effects are low, and the potential benefits to some clients appear quite substantial. Still, therapists need to be transparent and humble as they discuss the technique, review its potential benefits and limitations (including the limitations of the science), and explore with each client whether using it is indicated and whether it’s helping. Therapists (and clients) will do well to hear the sales pitch without feeling compelled to buy anything, and without assuming that what's on sale is inherently valuable.

In other words, when it comes to mindfulness, we are all well advised to be mindful.