Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Are we suffering from “McMindfulness”?

Mindfulness is sexy right now. If you’re even remotely connected to the worlds of psychology, health, fitness, sports, or business, you’re probably being bombarded with messages encouraging you to be more mindful (just take a look at your Twitter feed). On as personal level, I’m pretty happy about this (although not without some significant caveats, hence this article) – when I made the somewhat-unconventional choice of joining a neuroscience lab to study the neural mechanisms underlying mindfulness training 4 years ago for my PhD research, I faced some pushback from a few of my colleagues – wasn't I concerned about being taken seriously as a physician-scientist? Was mindfulness really scientifically and medically relevant, or just fringe pseudo-science? My argument was largely that I was interested in studying the effects of chronic stress and stress reduction on the human brain, and mindfulness-based stress reduction was (and is) a great paradigm for exactly that. Few people will argue with you over whether or not stress is physiologically relevant to health. I’ll still fall back on this strategy (and my interests still do revolve around stress-brain-health pathways), but these days, it’s increasingly trendy to be into mindfulness. There’s a much better understanding that mindfulness entails more than stress-reduction, and its benefits (and neural effects) extend well beyond that scope (e.g. attention, acceptance, non-judgement, affect regulation).

I could talk for a long time about the exciting things going on in health neuroscience re: mindfulness – it rewires brain circuitry involved in attention, emotional processing, executive function, and default mode; it changes the thickness of your cortex and volume of subcortical structures; and we have initial evidence that these brain changes mediate (or are mediated by) endocrine and immune function. This is legitimately cool and highly relevant stuff, potentially with significant implications down the line for treating a variety of mental and somatic pathologies. But what I want to talk about now are some ramifications of the EXPLOSION of media attention to mindfulness in the past year, and things for smart people to keep in mind.

First, mindfulness is now being applied to everything under the sun - a quick perusal of the media would lead you to believe that it's a panacea for anything and everything. As often happens when a complex-ish thing - particularly one that potentially has a lot of benefits - takes off (see: every popular diet ever), we start to look for shortcuts. After all, mindfulness is DIFFICULT. And it takes TIME.  Companies are running crash courses in mindfulness for their employees. We have mindful eating programs for weight loss. You can be mindful on your smartphone in 10 minutes a day. This is where we start to hear the term “McMindfulness” whispered within circles of researchers or experienced practitioners. And yes, while there may be a little bit of snobbery at play there (my meditation is bigger and better than yours), I think the analogy is very apt.

I want to make it clear that I am not against any of these “McMindfulness”-type programs – I think they really can be beneficial (we have studies that show that, too – the attention training aspect helps you at work, more mindful individuals tend to overeat less, etc), and any mindfulness is better than no mindfulness in our increasingly mind-less plugged-in society. We just need to keep in mind, first, the dose-response effect. The concern here is one of expectations – it’s hard to do this type of meditation training for a reason. Like anything else at life, you need to work hard at it to see the major benefits that are reported in the studies, many of which (at least on the neuroscience side) are conducted in experienced mindfulness practitioners with many, many hours of training. Additionally, we know that the specific benefits you get from mindfulness training depend upon one's hours of experience (this is also reflected in the time course of neural changes we see). In novice meditators, practicing mindfulness is still incredibly effortful – you need to go through this effortful struggle for a while (during which time the neural circuitry underlying focused attention is engaged heavily) before it becomes automatic, allowing you to achieve the effortless open monitoring ability you're probably seeking. Many people report huge psychological benefits from regular mindfulness practice, so maybe these mindfulness-lite programs tailored to specific outcomes are a great gateway to more structured, committed practice – that would be great, and time will tell.

The second thing I want you to keep in mind is the quality of the training you’re engaging in. If listening to your 10 minute daily mindfulness script on your phone is what you can do, please, please keep doing it. It is helping something; your amygdala just might not be shrinking quite yet. Similar to my pet peeves about “you’re not a real runner unless you’ve done a marathon” or “you’re not a real triathlete until you’ve done an Ironman” – misguided, frustrating attitudes that I think push people into things before they’re ready, or just for the purpose of checking off a box – you don’t need to do a billion minutes per week of body-scan meditation while sitting in the lotus position in your closet to use or benefit from mindfulness practice. Your 2 head-clearing mindful breaths to hit the re-set button at various points throughout the day, or the breath-focused movement practice that’s already part of your life (yoga, swimming, running, fill in the blank) is just fine. But if you’re doing your 10 minutes on your iphone while also checking Twitter and walking into a fountain, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. It’s like most diets – everyone went paleo/gluten-free/whatever and we saw lots of success stories initially because it was impossible for them to eat crap. Then, we had companies make paleo-cookies, cakes, and bars and now everyone can eat crap again while still on their magic diet. Same will apply to brain training – no shortcuts, quality is key.

Let’s end with some of the things that mindfulness will not do:

(1) Cure your cancer/autoimmune disease/HIV, without appropriate adjuvant medical therapy. Might it have beneficial effects on your immune system and mental health when added to traditional medical treatment? Absolutely, and there are peer-reviewed studies showing this. Am I going to try to mindfulness-away my deadly disease, though? Absolutely not.

(2) Make your business instantly successful.

(3) Make you crap glitter.

My advice? Take the long game. Like anything else that’s worth doing, it requires consistency and time. Stay away from the frenzied hype, and certainly don’t send anyone on the internet $1299 for a life-altering mindfulness potion. Find what works for you; as I've said before, you don’t have to necessarily sit in the corner and meditate to practice mindfulness. Eventually, the rewards will come – and when they do, let me know, because I’d like to scan your brain.


  1. Side note: I had heard some mindfulness teachers say that it is better to take one conscious breath (only one) multiple times throughout to the day, rather than meditate 20 minutes on your breathing and then to go about your day unconsciously.

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