The science of mindfulness

Reliable measurement is a central tenet of experimental psychology, but deciding what to measure is a much more complex question.
Accurate measurement is crucial to science, but deciding what to measure may be a more challenging question in mindfulness research

How do we understand mindfulness?

As a universal human capacity, mindfulness can be viewed from many conflicting, coexisting and complimentary perspectives. However, the exponential growth in the science of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. In addition, (d) that complex human behaviours and cognitive states can be understood through reductive investigations, (e) delivering data which can be reliably measured. In many respects, this positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate mindfulness is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.

Mindfulness and experimental psychology

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt – Founder of experimental psychology

The architect of experimental psychology is considered to be Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that complex human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individual, nuanced behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which are mediated by unique environmental conditions? One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) at least two stable fixed points that can be reliably measured in order to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot establish their own fixed points for the purposes of generating data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is uncertain1.

Precision in definitions of mindfulness

Reviews of the scientific literature have indicate that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. And that there are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is engaged with in scientific settings. But uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science, was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. And today contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of exactly what mindfulness might be, or how interventions are able to meditate it. The pressing question is how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies authoritative definition at the theoretical and operational level?

What do you think?

That mindfulness exists, and that it may be able to offer benefits to some practitioners is not disputed. But a lack of precision in defining the meta-cognitive state of mindfulness should raise concerns among scientists and clinicians. There are a number of potential solutions to these apparently intractable problems, but some may be beyond the scope of the ontology underpinning experimental psychology. Such as an understanding of implicit and explicit non dual states, or the creation of instruments able to integrate comprehensive, first, second and third person experience. But as the first article of this blog, the author wishes to pose two open questions. How has the ‘mindfulness revolution’ been fuelled without reliable understandings in place? What does this suggest about the way science intersects with society in general?


Taking about mindfulness

The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.

Rupert Gethin4

References

1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.

3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.

4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.


Notes

Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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