Trends in Mindfulness Research Over the Past 55 Years

Mindfulness literature has grown from a single article cited in 1966 to 2,808 in 2020. A recent publication from the journal Mindfulness traces the roots of research in the field and explores its developments over time.

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The origin of mindfulness as a contemplative practice stretches back centuries, but it’s only in the last five decades that research from around the world has sought to explore the effects of mindfulness on health and well-being. In a recent publication from the journal Mindfulness, authors Anuradha Baminiwatta and Indrajith Solangaarachchi used innovative computer technology to trace the roots of mindfulness literature and explore how it has grown over time.

“Bibliometrics is where you use various statistical and computational methods to understand the structure and trends in…the body of literature,” says Anuradha. Unlike systematic reviews, in which researchers would read each included study and synthesize the findings, bibliometrics maps the broader structure and scope of research and can identify themes and connections between studies. 

For example, the Java application CiteSpace was used to develop colorful visuals that resemble spider webs, which show collaborative research networks between countries or clusters of keywords that relate to mindfulness. The major research areas (such as “mindfulness-based therapeutic intervention” or “commitment therapy”) are mapped as luminescent bursts of color over a black background. The maps act like a visual guide for researchers interested in tracing the burgeoning field of mindfulness interventions and the evolution of the practice.

Mindfulness Research Over 55 Years 

Mindfulness literature has grown rapidly, from a single article cited in 1966 to a whopping 2,808 in 2020. Over the 55-year period analyzed by the authors, a total of 16,581 journal articles were published in Web of Science, a database of peer-reviewed, scholarly journals. Illustrated by a graph, the number of publications is small and steady for the first 40 years, and then shows exponential growth after 2006.

Mindfulness literature has grown rapidly, from a single article cited in 1966 to a whopping 2,808 in 2020. Over the 55-year period, a total of 16,581 journal articles were published in Web of Science, a database of peer-reviewed, scholarly journals.

The USA had the highest research output overall, representing close to half of all publications. However, the more recent period analyzed (2016-2021) has seen increasing contributions from Asian countries such as China, Iran, and India. “I think that is interesting [and] important because the conceptualization of mindfulness may be different from the Western secular form to the Eastern Buddhist traditions of mindfulness,” says Anuradha.

Clusters of research based in spiritual practices kicked off the early developments in mindfulness and meditation, with articles on transcendental meditation and reflective practices. “That influenced or laid the foundation for the more scientific and secular form of mindfulness,” says Anuradha, including Jon Kabat-Zinn’s foundational work on mindfulness interventions for chronic pain. Several of these articles became pivotal points, which Anuradha says were very important in connecting the older literature to newer works. Recent trends highlighted “knowledge clusters” that centred around popular topics, but without notable pivotal articles. 

Recent Trends and Developments

While the period from 1966 to 2015 generally explored how well mindfulness worked as a practice or therapy, newer research is interested in finding out what factors would make the practice more or less effective. The largest of these clusters was named “moderating role,” which Anuradha says relate to the factors that influence the efficacy of the intervention. “For example, there are patient-related factors or maybe therapist-related factors which can moderate and influence the outcome of mindfulness-based interventions.” This could include the length and frequency of the practice, whether the therapist practices mindfulness themselves, or where the practice is more effective–perhaps in the outdoors versus a quiet room.

When asked which trends the authors found the most interesting, Anuradha points to a cluster of research related to the COVID-19 outbreak. “We saw a surge of interest towards online interventions and mindfulness-based apps,” he says. “It might be a trend for the future and indicate the future direction of mindfulness research.” Also related to the pandemic was the role of mindfulness in reducing loneliness, likely to combat the challenges of social distancing.

The Future of Mindfulness Research

Other emerging trends included the application of mindfulness for eating disorders, smoking cessation, and bipolar or other psychotic disorders. The popularity of a review on the neuroscience of mindfulness indicates an interest in how mindfulness might be associated with brain changes. Another “citation burst” illustrates how gratitude (which the authors refer to as one of the “sisters of mindfulness” also including forgiveness, loving-kindness, compassion, acceptance, and best-self visualization) has attracted interest in the last several years. These publications explored how people who practice mindfulness may be more likely to notice and be grateful for the positive things in their lives.

Anuradha hopes that students and researchers who are interested in learning about mindfulness can use their study to locate important articles that will help them form a solid base of knowledge in the field. “I think this paper [also] gives some insight about the important points and landmarks in the mindfulness research literature,” he says. With new and emerging trends visually depicted, researchers have a colorful roadmap for their future research endeavors.