Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Evidence in Mindfulness and Personal Development

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Mindfulness was first presented in the Buddhist Satipatthana Sutta and has since grown in popularity as a technique said to lead to personal development, such as increased emotional awareness.

Today, the question remains as to how effective mindfulness is in personal development.

This article explores the evidence for mindfulness, and the different disciplinary methodologies for collecting this evidence, across the disciplines of philosophy, neuroscience and psychology. Some tensions exist between these disciplinary perspectives, including the lack of conversation between disciplines, inconsistent definitions and understanding of mindfulness-practise, and conflicting methodologies for gathering evidence. These issues lead to intra and interdisciplinary struggles in the formation of evidence and consensus.

Evidence across disciplines

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The Satipatthana Sutta, the foundational text of mindfulness in philosophy, communicates the effects of regular mindfulness practise, including the overcoming of grief, suffering and rumination, and the attainment of Nirvana.[1] The Satipatthana Sutta reached these conclusions using Guatama Buddha's personal experience of mindfulness. Early Buddhist texts claim that Guatama persistently meditated until he believed he had fully awakened.[2] The evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness was his Enlightenment.

Sam Harris is a renowned philosopher and neuroscientist who studies mindfulness.

In terms of modern philosophical thought, Sam Harris explains how mindfulness creates a state of mind which is "undisturbed", thus improving the "character of our experience, and therefore, the quality of our lives".[3] Philosopher Joseph Goldstein believes mindfulness practitioners become more accepting, peaceful, and less selfish.[4]

In this discipline, philosophers gather evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness through their experiences of direct participation in the practice. In his work, Harris stresses his "2 years on silent retreat" spent studying with monks.[5] This touches on the importance of the oral tradition in gathering evidence within Buddhist philosophy.[6] Whether or not practitioners develop an undisturbed mind as a result of mindfulness, they believe it to be an efficient technique, as they trust the experiences of their mentors.[7]

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Nobel peace prize nominated activist and monk, often considered the Father of Mindfulness.

Furthermore, from an eastern perspective, Thich Nhat Hanh is often considered the Father of Mindfulness.[8] A monk since age 16, he describes mindfulness as a “miracle” by which “we master and restore ourselves,” drawing upon his decades of experience practicing mindfulness.[9]

Overall, philosophers cite their qualitative experiences as evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness, rather than referring to scientific research which is now available to them. Philosophers' preference for their own disciplinary evidence may be attributed to the ambiguity in defining mindfulness in other disciplines, and that the benefits of mindfulness- such as 'Nirvana'- are hard to measure quantitively in neuroscientific research.


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Quantitative neuroscientific evidence demonstrates the personal impacts of mindfulness. Such evidence is vital in understanding the relationship between mindfulness meditation, an individual's self-perception, and their emotional processing. Neuroscientists study what they define as formal mindfulness- individuals practise specific exercises meant to stabilise their awareness of the present.[10]

Anatomically defined Default Mode Network, in which activity is affected through mindfulness meditation

Neuroscientists use evidence of functional changes in brain activity to infer a causal relationship between mindfulness and cognitive processes relating to specific neural pathways. Berkovich-Ohana (2011) used electroencephalography (EEG) to compare three groups of mindfulness-meditators (long-term, intermediate, and short-term), with non-meditators. More experienced meditators had lower gamma wave frequency/activation in their Default Mode Network (DMN), a region linked to self-processing and 'mind-wandering'/attention. Mindfulness-practise also linked to enhanced gamma activity in posterior regions, including the temporal lobes, indicating heightened sensory awareness.[11][12] All changes represented long-term brain functions, strongly observable in meditative states, but also visible during participants' resting states.[11] This evidence suggests that the personal impact of mindfulness (e.g. emotional awareness/regulation) is the result of long-term changes in neural activity in the DMN and posterior regions, related to awareness and consciousness.

Holzel et al. (2010) studied structural brain developments in participants who partook in a Mindfulness-based stress reduction programme (MBSR), using MRI scans. The imaging indicated increased grey matter concentration (development of neurons and neural networks) in the left hippocampus and the posterior cingulate cortex of the MBSR group, associated with emotional processing, responsiveness to stress, and cognition and self-awareness, respectively.[13][14] This research demonstrates the structural effects of mindfulness, corresponding with its impact on emotional regulation.[13]

In contrast with philosophers, neuroscientists take a predominantly quantitative approach to mindfulness, which standardises participants personal development. Although a quantitative approach precisely measures the impacts of mindfulness, it does not encompass the subjectivity of the experience like philosophy does. Additionally, analysing changes in the brain fails to consider that the impacts of mindfulness may have varying behavioural manifestations across individuals.

Western Clinical Psychology

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In contrast with philosophy and neuroscience, psychological studies utilise two different definitions of mindfulness. The first emphasises awareness- the individual focuses on their internal presence. The second definition details the intentional practice of openness and care towards others and oneself.[15][16] These definitions of mindfulness are fundamental for developing evidence to demonstrate its effects on individuals. However, evidence from individual studies has found that aiming to measure mindfulness using a binary definition creates a multitude of divided results.[16] Regardless, several psychological studies still demonstrate positive changes in behaviour, including increased hopefulness and decreased anxiety.[16]

The methodology in gathering evidence for mindfulness within psychology is both quantitative and qualitative. One frequently used method of analysis is the Kentucky Inventory Mindfulness Scale (KIMS), which has a self-reporting evidence scheme, and is replicable, to enable efficient statistical analyses.[17] The Mindfulness Awareness and Attention Scale (MAAS) is another questionnaire, which creates correlative understanding whilst incorporating qualitative methods through its' self-reporting schemes.[18] Christopher et al. (2009) analysed the progress in personal development whilst examining the use and cross-cultural applications of western mindfulness using these methods.[19][16] In examining Thai and US undergraduate students, they found that Thai students demonstrated a more cohesive understanding of mindfulness, as reflected in their KIMS results. This highlights different cultural approaches to mindfulness- the immersion of the practice in Thai culture, and the 'intermittent' mindfulness experienced in western psychology. The MAAS scale obtained similar results surrounding the two groups' personal development and their conceptualisation of mindfulness.[19]

Differing definitions of mindfulness and methodology within psychology alter the evidence created within the discipline; an exhibition of this is the contrasting results of a study performed by Carmody et al., which detail that the evidence of mindfulness can be 'disidentification' [20]which opposes the evidence of decreased anxiety, the result of a study by Sears.[21][22] Furthermore, the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods used in psychology utilises techniques from philosophy, and the scientific method in neuroscience, in the attempt to grasp the personal effects of mindfulness. However, the hybrid methodology does not include different disciplinary perspectives which prevent a necessary broader conceptualisation.[22]


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The lack of communication between disciplines means that scholars don’t share a common definition of mindfulness, nor a shared understanding of its effects, leading to tensions between disciplines. Due to the different approaches to evidence in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology, no single discipline can fully conceptualise the effectiveness of mindfulness. Different methodologies, aims, and definitions of mindfulness in each discipline's research are the root cause of this conflict. Mindfulness is, therefore, an interdisciplinary practice, and should be treated as such in the collection of evidence. This may be done by combining methodologies and the understanding of evidence across disciplines to fully appreciate how mindfulness affects personal development using quantitative (standard questionnaires and brain scans) and qualitative data, which considers individuals' unique experiences with the practise.


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