Review of current research articles
Alpha brain waves and mindfulness: where is the evidence?
Written by David Arthur, March 2013
At the alphaeight institute we build training programmes and research projects which adopt the belief that when a person is in an alpha brain state, they are more ‘mindful’ and likely to bring about behaviour change in themselves, to be more creative and problem solving and hence better leaders and managers. Good practitioners, be they health workers, behavioural scientists, neuroscientists or educators must base their practice on the best evidence and so too, we should be asked: where is the evidence that mindfulness and achieving an alpha brain state is possible and brings about behaviour change?
To answer the question I will highlight three recent, and different examples of how evidence can be collected and used to support practice:
1. a mindfulness bibliography
2. a meta analysis, and
3. a systematic review of the evidence.
a mindfulness bibliography
The first example is a ‘Mindfulness Bibliography’ (Williams & Zylowska, 2009) website which presents 113 pages of references organised into three main sections: selected books; meta-analyses and review articles; and issues in mindfulness research.
Importantly the list is compiled from scholarly data bases of peer reviewed literature including PsycINFO, MEDLINE and the Cochrane Data bases, which are the definitive sources for scholarly research and evidence based practice. Although in need of updating it is nevertheless a valuable source for those seeking a reliable and valid source of literature on mindfulness. Included are references, the volume of which point toward a parabolic increase in interest in mindfulness as a construct, as an adjunct for treatment of medical conditions, mental disorders, and a fertile ground for research in neuroscience and education.
a meta analysis
A meta-analysis is a statistical procedure in which results from research trials which are methodologically similar, are combined and analysed so that the sample size and the effect are larger and more powerful. In other words it is an analysis of analyses, so data from several smaller trials can be combined into a larger data set. Chiesa and Serretti (2009) did just this with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programmes which are proving very popular and successful for treatment of physical and mental disorders. They searched the academic data bases and found 10 studies which could be combined for analysis. Each study was conducted on healthy individuals, used valid stress measures, and investigated the efficacy of MBSR compared to controls.. The results were that MBSR consistently provided a significant effect on reducing stress. Because the interventions have several components they are reluctant to say specifically which are the components of MBSR which are most effective. Although ‘mindfulness’ is agreed to be the key ingredient more research needs to be done to find out exactly why, and how it functions.
Another important finding for management training programmes, was that MBSR significantly improves spirituality, or empathy and decreases perceived stress levels. This evidence is solid and provides impetus for training programmes which utilise mindfulness activities to enhance leadership traits.
a systematic review of the evidence
In the third example of ways of organising evidence, Fjorback et al (2011) conducted a systematic review of randomised controlled trials of MBSR in people with people having therapy for mental health issues. A systematic review is a technique in which the relative strengths of similar studies are compared and based on rigor, and several research criteria, a score given to each. From the 21 studies examined, they were able to conclude that MBSR improves mental health and mental resilience. Again they recommend more work to examine exactly what mindfulness is, but the findings are again strong and provide a valid evidence base for conducting mindfulness based activities to help develop and strengthen the mental health of modern managers and leaders.
The first example is merely a collection of titles, but it does provide a solid base for further literature searching. The other two articles, while not true research studies nevertheless are well recognised ways of compiling and presenting evidence for the use of researchers and practitioners, and certainly helps answer the question ‘where is the evidence that provides the basis for training programmes which utilise mindfulness as a means of enhancing behaviour change in managers and leaders?’
Fjorback, LO., Arendt, M., Ornbol, E., Fink, P. & Walach, H. (2011) Mindfullness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: a systematic review of randomised controlled trial, Acta Psychiatr Scand. 124(2): 102-19.
Williams, JC. & Zylowska, L. (2009) Mindfulness Bibliography. http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=38&oTopID=38. Retrieved 25 March 2013.