Meditation: It’s celebrated as a therapeutic tool to help ease stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and chronic pain. It’s come into vogue as a way to enhance human performance, finding its way into classrooms, businesses, locker rooms and smartphones through apps such as Headspace and Calm. Various forms of meditation are now routinely offered to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In particular, mindfulness meditation, which focuses one’s attention on the present moment, is wildly popular and has ballooned into a billion-dollar business, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.
But for all its popularity, researchers don’t know exactly what the mindfulness version of meditation — or any other kind of meditation — does to the brain, how it influences health and to what extent it helps physical and mental challenges. People have practiced meditation for thousands of years, but psychologists and neuroscientists have studied its effects on humans for only a few decades. And many of those studies have used only small numbers of subjects, lacked follow-up and generally been less scientifically rigorous than other medical research.
There is a common misperception in public and government domains that compelling clinical evidence exists for the broad and strong efficacy of mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention,” wrote a group of 15 scholars in “Mind the Hype, ” an article that appeared in January in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Yet the reality is that mindfulness-based therapies have shown “a mixture of only moderate, low or no efficacy, depending on the disorder being treated,” the scholars added, citing a 2014 meta-analysis commissioned by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
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