This week, an article in the New York Times about the potential for meditation and mindfulness training to ameliorate symptoms of ADHD has been causing some excitement. The author, Daniel Goleman, is a psychologist who has long been interested in meditation, and he suggests the practice helps improve “cognitive control” deficits associated with the disorder. And there are studies, he writes, that show mindfulness training leads to a “decline in impulsive errors,” and that meditation appears “to strengthen the neural circuitry for keeping attention on a chosen point of focus.”
It should be noted that Goleman’s focus on these brain-training strategies is tied to ambivalence about a common treatment for ADHD: drugs. “Meditation, not medication,” you might say. He describes a “growing disenchantment” with stimulant meds—familiar to anyone who has read the recent string of anti-stimulant articles in the Times—and then, unfortunately, offers misleading study evidence in support of their unsuitability. For instance, if kids with ADHD in Finland take far less medication than American children, it does not necessarily indict the treatment.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion on medication treatment, however. The real question here is this: Are meditation and mindfulness also good treatments? There is “huge potential” in this research, says Dr. Ron Steingard, associate medical director at the Child Mind Institute. And he is optimistic, but the fact is that the methods “aren’t ready for primetime.” The studies Goleman cites have limited sample sizes and do not include children. Their authors suggest more robust future research, which is a fantastic idea. As Dr. Steingard points out, high-functioning adults with ADHD who have learned to accommodate certain symptoms may very well use similar mental strategies; understanding this and developing evidence-based treatments would be an amazing help for people who struggle with the disorder.
In the meantime, however, we don’t know if these approaches will work in kids, and we don’t know if they will help with the hyperactive and impulsive symptoms that pose such a threat to young people with ADHD. Just because we are optimistic does not mean we can cease to be realistic when it comes to the risks of the disorder and the proven treatments we have on hand now.