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The mindfulness revolution: A clear-headed look at the evidence

Mindfulness is hailed as a treatment for a vast array of problems and the apps are now hugely popular. But do the claims about its benefits stack up? New Scientist investigates

Health 2 June 2021

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Stephan Schmitz

THERE is nothing wrong with thinking. It is what makes us human. Our ability to remember the past and imagine the future has made us the most successful species on the planet. But can we take it too far? Scientists and self-help gurus alike argue that spending too much time ruminating on our worries can make us stressed and miserable, while blinding us to the joys of what is happening right now. The cure, we are told, is to be more mindful. The practice of mindfulness – paying attention to our experience in a non-judgemental, accepting way – promises to help us escape the tyranny of our thoughts, boosting our mood, performance and health along the way.

At this point, there can’t be many people on the planet who haven’t tried mindfulness at least once. Secular versions of the practice were first developed from Buddhist roots in the 1970s, paving the way for scientific studies into its effects on the mind. Since it burst into the mainstream in the 1990s, high-profile research papers and media reports have claimed dramatic changes in brain structure and function, and benefits ranging from sharper attention to boosted mood, memory and a younger-looking brain.

Mindfulness is now prescribed by doctors, taught in schools, provided by employers and is readily available to download on our smartphones. It is no longer a fringe topic, but part of daily life. “Now, everyone’s got the app,” says a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California.

In recent years, though, some researchers have begun to urge caution, warning that the benefits of the practice have been hyped and potential harms ignored. It is …