Mindfulness Meditation: Panacea or Placebo?

“Now the shorter of following…” a calm voice drawls. I count my breath. Out 1,2,3. In 3,2,1. I feel proud of not getting distracted and then realize that this thought is a distraction and return my focus to counting.

I have been attending mindfulness meditation classes this term, and this is my fifth week of practicing meditation. Mindfulness meditation has received a great deal of attention recently, notably from the scientific community. The method has been suggested as an alternative treatment for stress, anxiety, pain relief and psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Oxford, along with many other institutions, has a designated Mindfulness Centre where the practice is researched. But what empirical evidence has there been with regards to the efficacy of meditation? Is any benefit merely a placebo effect, or a real neurological modification?

A meta analysis of 20 empirical studies looking at the effect of mindfulness on a wide range of psychiatric conditions found that mindfulness had an effect size of 0.5 – usually considered a “medium” effect. Admittedly, this analysis began with 64 studies, and found that 44 did not meet the criteria for the analysis, due to reasons such as lack of information about methodology, inadequate statistical analysis and mindfulness not being the main treatment investigated. Despite the small sample size, this meta-analysis is particularly useful as the criteria about the methodology of each study was strict enough to allow a good comparison of results. It also included studies that looked at mindfulness meditation on a wide range of people, from cancer patients to non-clinical sufferers of stress.

As Tim Minchin stated, “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” As studies on the effectiveness of the therapy become more thorough, we should get a better idea of how to label this practice. If mindfulness meditation is shown to be effective, there is the possibility of it being adopted as a widespread psychiatric treatment, perhaps in conjunction with other methods, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

So what has the effect been for this sample size of one? These classes haven’t led me to enlightenment (not that this would be expected for any practitioner of meditation after 8 weeks). However, I do feel more aware of when I’m losing focus in lectures, I got a tattoo without feeling much pain, and I left the classes feeling relaxed and pleasantly empty.



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