Breath Counting May Be an Objective Measure of Mindfulness

Breath Counting May Be an Objective Measure of Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


As its name implies, the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ uses the breath as an object of concentration. By focusing on the breath you become aware of the mind’s tendency to jump from one thing to another. The simple discipline of concentration brings us back to the present moment and all the richness of experience that it contains. It is a way to develop mindfulness, the faculty of alert and sensitive awareness.” – The Buddhist Centre


Mindfulness training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. As a result, mindfulness training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding mindfulness effects is that there are, a wide variety of methods to measure mindfulness most of which involve subjective answers to questions from the practitioner. There is a need for more objective measures.


Focused attention meditation is a mindfulness training technique that involves paying attention to a single meditation object, frequently the breath, counting each in breath and each out breath. This breath following meditation practice is easy to observe and quantify with a breath counting test and may serve as an objective measure of the development of mindfulness.


In today’s Research News article “Towards an Objective Measure of Mindfulness: Replicating and Extending the Features of the Breath-Counting Task.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:  ), Wong and colleagues recruited college students and had them complete a 20-minute breath counting task, a 20-minute vigilance task, and mindfulness, cognitive failures, and mind wandering questionnaires. On a second occasion the participants completed a second 20-minute breath counting task. In the breath counting task the participants pushed a button after each breath while their actual breathing was measured.


They found that 72% of the breaths were accurately counted but participants were significantly poorer during the second 10 minutes of the task than the first 10 minutes. The results of the first breath counting task were highly correlated with the results of the second, suggesting high reliability of measurement with the task. They also found that the higher the breath counting accuracy, the higher was the accuracy and the fewer the errors in the vigilance (attentional) task and the fewer the cognitive failures reported in everyday life. Finally, there was a trend toward higher breath counting accuracy being associated with higher subjective mindfulness.


These results suggest that the breath counting task may be a useful objective measure of mindfulness that has high reliability. It correlates with sustained attentional ability (vigilance) and also with subjective mindfulness. Further research is needed to determine if this is a better measure of mindfulness for use in research and therapeutic interventions. One potential way to look at this is to see if breath counting accuracy increases after mindfulness training and better predicts other outcomes of mindfulness practice.


So, breath counting may be an objective measure of mindfulness.


“Breath-counting meditation builds on controlled breathing techniques and exercises and can alleviate stress. Breath-counting meditation is one of the most basic and commonly used forms of meditation.” – Alan Elkin


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary


F Wong, K., A A Massar, S., Chee, M., & Lim, J. (2018). Towards an Objective Measure of Mindfulness: Replicating and Extending the Features of the Breath-Counting Task. Mindfulness, 9(5), 1402-1410.



Despite calls for objective measures of mindfulness to be adopted in the field, such practices have not yet become established. Recently, a breath-counting task (BCT) was proposed as a reliable and valid candidate for such an instrument. In this study, we show that the psychometric properties of the BCT are reproducible in a sample of 127 Asian undergraduates. Specifically, accuracy on the BCT was associated with everyday lapses and sustained attention, and weakly associated with subjectively measured mindfulness. BCT metrics also showed good test-retest reliability. Extending the use of the paradigm, we further found that two different types of task errors—miscounts and resets—were correlated with different aspects of cognition. Miscounts, or errors made without awareness, were associated with attentional lapses, whereas resets, or self-caught errors, were associated with mind-wandering. The BCT may be a suitable candidate for the standardized measurement of mindfulness that could be used in addition to mindfulness questionnaires.


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