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Mindfulness refers to bringing one’s complete attention to the moment without judging one’s thoughts. In my psychiatry and coaching practice, many people benefit significantly from it. It helps them clear their mind and focus on the present. When they are mindful, they are simply observing sensations, thoughts, and bodily states with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.
It’s not surprising that my patients and clients find it beneficial. After all, the practice of mindfulness has been found to be helpful in preventing depression and in improving anxiety and reactivity to stress. It may also be helpful for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and it may boost immunity and prolong life.
Despite these advantages, mindfulness research has come under criticism because the quality of research is hampered by methodological flaws. Although there are people who benefit from mindfulness, for some, it is disorienting, stultifying, and confusing, and it may make them feel distant from their own humanity. Moreover, recent research has shown that mindfulness may have some other disadvantages:
1. False memories
A recent study found that mindfulness may increase false memories, though this finding was subsequently challenged in another study in December 2017. If there is truth to this finding, it would suggest that mindfulness does not necessarily help us remember more effectively and may make our memories less accurate. In fact, the first study showed that people who practice mindfulness may be less connected to reality.
On the other hand, mind-wandering is better than mindfulness in preventing false memories, so it might help to balance your mental practice by adding different forms of mind-wandering into your day.
2. Less creativity
Although mindfulness has been found to be helpful for problems requiring analytical thinking (it clears the mind), greater states of mindfulness have been associated with lower states of creativity.
Mindfulness does not help you when solving a problem requires insight. Instead, mind-wandering will likely help you become more creative. Once again, because mind-wandering shuts mindfulness off, it effectively shuts off the creative brain. Positive constructive daydreaming, in particular, may help you if you are looking for creative insight into a challenge you face.
3. Dissociation, mania, and psychosis
A recent paper reported that meditation may, in fact, have negative side effects as well. It may lead to increased states of dissociation and feeling disconnected from one’s body. In addition, it may make people more psychotic, anxious, and manic.
While many of these studies were on unknown forms of meditation or transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation was associated with dissociation, mania, double vision, and psychosis. However, most of these reports were case histories and not well-controlled research, so they probably matter most if you are already at risk for any of these symptoms.
To date, there are no studies that demonstrate that narcissism is a result of mindfulness. Yet mindfulness makes you feel better about yourself. Studies have demonstrated that there is a dark side to enhanced self-esteem as well.
In fact, having higher self-esteem may be associated with being more aggressive toward others, enhancing one’s self, and narcissism. Losing touch with the egoless dimensions of mindfulness may predispose one to have an air of superiority over others.
So should you practice mindfulness?
As with all research, there are conflicting studies on the utility of mindfulness. This may dissuade some from believing the research altogether or persuade others to take one side or the other. When it comes to mindfulness, there are many more controlled studies attesting to its benefits than its risks. Yet if we are overly swayed by the benefits, we may not consider the possible risks.
Science is a great guide to answering important questions, such as “Is mindfulness helpful to you?” But you are still an individual. More and more, science itself is beginning to realize that every individual is different and that the perfect clinical trial is one that is done for any specific individual.
The overwhelming amount of research to date suggests that mindfulness is beneficial for depression, anxiety, stress, attention, and analytical problem-solving. If you are feeling dissociated, manic, or disconnected from reality, you might exercise some caution. If people are reporting that you are overconfident or inaccurate, consider that mindfulness may be contributing to this. And if you want to balance things out, consider adding mind-wandering to your day, too. It’s better for creativity and will likely help you deepen your mindfulness practice.
Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.” He also serves as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School.