Research published in the Journal of the Null Hypothesis suggests those who want to practice meditation and mindfulness training shouldn’t jump in head first.
Researchers Dan Hartnett and Alan Carr of University College Dublin found simply listening to a relatively short audio recording of mindfulness instruction resulted in no measurable beneficial effect.
“Essentially the study aimed to assess the effectiveness of a brief mindfulness-based exercise on participants ability to ‘let go’ of anxious thoughts,” Hartnett told PsyPost. “Our study found that, in this particular instance, the intervention was no better than the control condition.”
Previous research had found that mindfulness training could provide participants with a greater capacity to “let go” of negative thoughts. In particular, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have been shown to have such positive psychological effects.
In both programs, those undergoing the mindfulness training received face-to-face instruction. Hartnett and Carr, however, wanted to see whether a brief audio recording could deliver similar results.
For their study, the researchers instructed 57 adults to listen to either a 20 minute mindfulness exercise or an extract from The Hobbit once a day for one week.
But they found no difference between the two groups in regards to their capacity to “let go” of negative thoughts. There was no statistically significant difference between those who listened to the mindfulness exercise and those who listened to The Hobbit.
“In the study we identified a number of factors which may account for this result,” Hartnett told PsyPost. “One of the more interesting of these was the idea that sequencing of training may be an important factor with regard to the beneficial effects of mindfulness-based exercises manifesting a beneficial effect.”
“Traditional Buddhist training as well as the MBSR and MBCT programs begin with exercises which aim to foster mindfulness of physical sensations such as placing one’s attention on the breath or scanning the body — a considerable evidence base exists with regard to the success of these approaches,” he continued. “The participants in our study were completely naive with regard to any form of mindfulness practice. And, a number of theories with regard to the beneficial effects of mindfulness are grounded in the practitioners’ capacity to direct their attention.”
“It may be that in order for practitioners to successfully undertake a ‘mindfulness of thoughts’ exercise, a grounding in ‘mindfulness of physical sensations’, must first be undertaken,” Hartnett said.
“The practitioners’ capacity for attentional control is first honed using physical sensations before moving to the more elusive domain of thoughts,” he told PsyPost. “Rather than being a source of skepticism with regard to mindfulness training, I believe the study speaks to the wisdom of traditional Buddhist training in which practitioners have been first ‘watching the breath’ before ‘watching thoughts’ as part of a successful path to happiness for centuries.”
The Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis was created to counteract the publication bias in psychology. Many journals only publish research that finds a statistically significant, positive conclusion. Studies that find no effect are often discarded, though they can be just as informative as studies that find an effect.
“If a study has null results psychologists will often abandon the research to move on to other ideas and not report the findings,” the journal explains in a FAQ. “The result is that the journals are filled with studies that reached significance. For example, there may have been 20 null studies conducted on a topic but one significant study reported in the literature.”