The Burden of Proof

Brown’s new mindfulness center seeks evidence for a popular practice’s benefits

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Mindfulness, roughly defined as the practice of concentrating one’s awareness on the present moment and on one’s feelings and sensations, without judgement, is achieving new heights of prominence in the Western world, allegedly treating conditions ranging from anxiety to cancer. No longer the purview only of meditation centers and yoga studios, mindfulness apps abound, used by corporate executives looking to increase their productivity and reduce stress. Now a new center at Brown University is trying to put some data behind the hype.

The director of the center, Eric Loucks, is an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown. He is at the helm of five clinical trials of mindfulness-based health interventions, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and in collaboration with partner researchers at Harvard and UMass. “Overall,” he says, “there’s a lot of excitement and promise” in the field of mindfulness. “But as with any field, you need really good checks and balances.” While mindfulness as a practice dates back 2,000 years, scientific inquiry centered on it began only about 35 years ago.

The goal of the center is not only to provide research that mindfulness works, but also to encourage health practitioners who already use mindfulness on their patients to rely on the evidence-based kind. The center offers an online database for consumers who are looking for evidence-based practitioners in Rhode Island.

“There’s a certain amount of privilege that goes along with being able to do quantitative research and publish it,” Loucks acknowledges. “We’re not saying that evidence-based is better, it’s just that we know a lot more about how [evidence-based studies] work.”

The center’s corps of researchers pulls from a wide range of disciplines. In addition to Loucks with his epidemiological background, biostatistics, religious studies and psychiatry professors are on board. Drawing on this diversity, the center will seek to examine negative and positive effects of mindfulness in a variety of scenarios: from hospital readmission rates for psychosis to HIV risk rates. (Mindfulness has been deployed in a number of contexts; Loucks himself has “developed specific, customized mindfulness interventions for people with high blood pressure.”)

Loucks came to mindfulness through a personal childhood connection. “My mom’s aunt married a Tibetan,” he says, who happened to be “the foreign affairs minister to the Dalai Lama. So I started reading one of the Dalai Lama’s books when I was 13 or something.” He joined a mindfulness meditation group that followed the teachings of Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, eventually began to teach mindfulness and has kept up a “really strong personal practice for about 20 years.”

“In mindfulness teachings and Buddhism, healthy skepticism is encouraged,” Loucks says. “Buddha himself said don’t do anything unless you want to do it. I want to use that skepticism to form methodologically rigorous studies to disprove my hypothesis, not prove it. My strong personal practice has affected my life, but just because it affects one person, doesn’t mean it affects everybody.”