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Marieke van Vugt

An update on mindfulness research in Europe

I just attended the First International Conference on Mindfulness in Rome. It is quite amazing to see how mindfulness research is thriving in Europe, and how many studies are being done. While the quality of the presented research varied, the range of presented topics was just as large, and included mindfulness in business situations, mindful tango, mindfulness for different kind of psychiatric conditions, and computational modeling of meditation (which was my contribution).


Esther Papies showed that even a brief 12-minute mindfulness induction could change the food choices that people made: people were less lured by tempting but unhealthy foods and ate more salads. She thinks this arises because the foods have less "subjective realism" to them--it is as if you can take a step back and be less grabbed by them. Similarly, my colleague Brian Ostafin showed that traumatic film clips had less of an impact on people--it made them less anxious.

One of the highlights of the conference was a talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn about the practice of being a meditation researcher. He very much emphasized the importance of the human connection--he even said that what Buddha taught wasn't Buddhism, it was about human beings. He encouraged us to examine our motivation all the time and not to get too caught up in the competition of science. Studying mindfulness should not be a smart career move, but something you really want to do to benefit the world. He ended by reminding us that we have a very privileged moment on this planet together--can we love it, and live it?

A good deal of time was also spent discussing various measures of mindfulness. I think most people agreed that questionnaires are not a great way to measure mindfulness, and yet those are the state-of-the-art measure that scientists use. Interestingly, some people propose innovative implicit measures, e.g., based on the idea of probing people at random times and seeing whether their attention is still on the breath (Frewen), or examining whether an EEG correlate of where people's attention is directed is correlated with people's self-report of where their attention is (Whitmarsh). Yet, it is important to recognize that these are merely attentional measures, and Paul Grossman also emphasized that mindfulness is more than concentration: it presupposes qualities of kindness, non-judgmentalness, patience, and tolerance. Additionally, Henk Barendregt mentioned that the aim of mindfulness is deconditioning, letting go of the detrimental habits that we have, which often don't bring anything else than suffering, at least in the long run. While I agree with those concerns about the ethical dimensions of mindfulness, I am not quite sure how we can even begin to measure those scientifically.

Overall, the conference showed that while a lot of progress is being made on investigating the effects of mindfulness on psychopathology, the brain, and cognition, we still are only starting to scratch the surface of this research program. Many challenges lie ahead!