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The Science of Mindfulness (part 1)

by Bruno Van de Casteele

July 14, 2013

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Donate This is part 1 of a follow-up post on my initial blog article on the science (and my supposed lack thereof) of Mindfulness, a technique used within some psychotherapy circles. The post was written after watching a Belgian TV documentary with some weird applications of this technique. Those weird applications still bother me, but I got called out, rightly, by the commentors on my remark that there was no science involved.

In this first part, and to stay within the same geographic scope, I investigated some links sent to me by Jean-Michel Abrassart, organiser of Brussels Skeptics in the Pub and host of the Scepticisme Scientifique podcast (in French). He pointed me to professor Pierre Philippot and his team, of the Université Catholique de Louvain (Catholic University of Louvain, french-speaking part). All references below are in French, except for the scientific article mentioned.

He is heading some interesting research. For instance, there is this study on the effects of mindfulness on recovering depressed patients. Mindfulness applied as a therapy reduces "overgeneral memories". It helps diminishing, if I understand correctly, a sort of selection bias. This then helps in not falling back into a negative mindset. Meanwhile, autobiographical memory exercises show, in my interpretation, that negative thoughts can be countered with better memory of positive experiences.

The result is interesting in several ways. First, it was a small study (25 participants), indicating that this treatment is still at the preliminary stage. Secondly, the abstract explains the meditation techniques used, explaining my initial confusion between mindfulness, relaxation and meditation. Given that several "attention" or "awareness" techniques are applied nowadays within Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, I now know that it is not relaxation as it is applied within the clinical context. The word meditation seems to be avoided as it might call up "woo" perception.

A final interesting point is about the very limited area where mindfulness is applied in this article, ie. recovering depression. The department offers several training programs (open to all - psychotherapist is not a protected title in Belgium), and I especially like the specific indications and counterindications listed on its website.
For instance, it is clearly indicated that it is not recommended to use Mindfulness for acute depressions or non-stabilised bipolar disorders. I'm assuming that other therapies (including but not limited to medication) should be followed in these case. Another point, damning for some of the sessions portrayed in the Belgian documentary, is that it is not to be used for attention disorders.

For those interested (and being able to understand French), the didactic material including audio clips are available on the website linked to the above university website. After listening to some of the audio clips, it again seems to be centered around meditation exercises (but that doesn't it mean it's bad), aided by a sort of logging or diary exercise that helps (as explained above) to quit biased negative thoughts and remember better the positive or neutral things that happened.

In short, after reviewing the available material here in Belgium, it seems there is indeed some valid scientific research around Mindfulness. A bit preliminary, and limited in its application, but valid nevertheless.

Part two is this way, and part three is over here.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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