What is Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” ~Sylvia Boorstein

 

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is used in many contexts with many different meanings. There is no single definition that is agreed upon by the research and practitioner communities.  In fact, there are many different definitions. Arguably the most commonly used definition and the one that I prefer, is the definition proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

 

This definition contains a number of important components that help to better understand exactly what mindfulness is. Firstly, mindfulness is “paying attention.” But, not just letting the mind settle somewhere passively, but “on purpose.” That makes it an active process; a willful choice. With mindfulness, the mind is not aimlessly wandering. Rather it is focused.

 

The problem comes up, though, that our minds are unruly. In fact, the mind is often referred to as a “monkey mind,” implying that it jumps around in an untamed and unruly fashion. This is without a doubt true. Matt Killingsworth sampled people’s thinking at unpredictable times during the day and discovered that 47% of the time people’s minds were off-topic, that is, they were thinking about something else other than what was going on at the moment. They were not mindful almost half the time.

 

It is often a shock for people to discover that a large amount of the time they are not controlling their minds. Rather, the mind appears to be some extent controlling what they are experiencing. Most people suffer from the illusion that they are in control. So, it is eye opening to discover that frequently they are not. To get control of the mind and keep it paying attention to what is going on in the moment requires a degree of effort. But, even then the mind tends to wander off, thinking about past events, planning for the future, or simply day dreaming. Fortunately, mind wandering can be reduced with practice. But, even highly trained mindfulness practitioners have frequent lapses where the mind goes off by itself into topics far removed from the present. So, no one should expect to be able to completely control the mind, just hope to control it better.

 

A second important aspect of the definition is that, in mindfulness, attention is directed to what is occurring in the “present moment.” That seems straightforward until one tries to define exactly what portion in time is the present moment. Our first inclination is to think of the present moment as instantaneous, exactly this particular moment only. But with a little reflection it becomes obvious that what we experience as the present moment actually extends back in time a short ways and also forward slightly into the future. If it didn’t extend back in time we could never see motion, as we wouldn’t be aware of a change from a previously seen position. For that matter, we wouldn’t be able to hear a full word, only the immediate sound. Obviously this is not the case, because the present moment actually contains a little bit of the past. Demonstrating that the present actually extends a little into the future is more difficult and subtle to detect. But, if we interrupt speech in the middle of a sentence, you will find that you seemingly “hear” the next syllable or word that the mind is expecting to appear or if we interrupt a movie you seemingly “see” the next frame.

 

The total amount of time constituted by the present moment is difficult to precisely define. Marc Wittmann asserts that before we can answer that question of how long is now we must first define exactly what we mean by the present moment. He identifies three different ideas of the present moment; functional moment, experienced moment, and mental presence. The most pertinent for our discussion of mindfulness is the experienced moment, the subjective present. It is an experienced now within an ongoing stream of events. For example, while listening to music a note does not stand alone in consciousness but is joined by the prior note and the expected future note. In speech, each word is perceived in reference to past and expected words, as in the phrase “how are you”. When we hear “are” we process it recognizing that it’s in reference to a question, “How” and due to our learning we also experience the “are” with the expectation of a following word “you”. It’s been estimated that the experienced moment lasts somewhere up to 3 seconds. So, when we refer to present moment awareness we are referring not to an instant but to the approximately 3 seconds that we experience as the present.

 

A third important aspect of the definition is that, in mindfulness there is no judgment of experience. This indicates that when we are mindful we are simply experiencing things as they are without evaluation. It is important to note that it is value judgments that are absent. Making judgments about the likely course of events and what actions are needed is actually a part of mindfulness. If we’re driving mindfully we are constantly judging whether we need to slow down or turn to avoid hitting another car, whether we can safely make it through a traffic light that is about to change, whether a car may pull out in front of us. If we are driving mindfully we’re making these judgments but totally aware the whole time of what is happening.

 

The non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness involves value judgments about what we’re experiencing. Things are not good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, happy or sad, worthwhile or worthless, etc. They simply are. Although seemingly simple, this is actually devilishly difficult to do. The mind has been trained pretty much since birth to judge everything. This is actually quite good and adaptive, allowing us to decide if we should approach and acquire things we need or to avoid things that could do us harm. But, the judgment goes on even when it has little consequence toward survival. So, we see another person and classify them as attractive, or smart, or boring, or obnoxious, or rich, or a fool, or friendly, or a rival, etc. We hear a loud sound and we immediately think it’s threatening, or unnecessary noise, or enjoyable, or someone being inconsiderate, etc. We taste a food and immediately think that it’s delicious, or sour, or nauseating, or healthful, etc. We are constantly judging.

 

Being non-judgmental requires quieting the mind. If left to itself, the mind will always judge. So, to be mindful we need to shut off the evaluating chatter. Just experiencing everything as it is, as a pure and simple experience. It’s actually quite amazing what happens when judgment is turned off. Suddenly, we begin to appreciate even the simplest of things which begin to shine and stand out in their own unique way. Another person is simply seen as another human being with needs and desires, and a consciousness, just like us, a reflection of our own humanness. An odor can be experienced as a unique sensation that will never be repeated exactly the same again. Just breathing can be experienced fully as a series of movements and sensations that arise and fall away and the repeat over and over again, automatically, without direction or thought, each time revitalizing and nourishing our physical being, leading to a recognition of physiology at work. These are just some of the fruits of mindfulness.

 

It is very difficult to stop the judging even for brief periods of time. But, again practice comes to the rescue. Over time, if the effort is expended, judging slowly decreases and stops for longer and longer periods of time. Don’t expect to ever be able to stop judging completely. This would be a battle with you mind that can’t be won. Just expect that you can become better at looking at things as they are without value judgments and be able to maintain it for a longer period of time.

 

The final aspect of the definition that needs amplification and discussion is the notion that mindfulness involves paying attention in “a particular way.” Unfortunately, this is a rather ambiguous phrase that actually refers to a very important component of mindfulness. The “particular way” refers to attention primarily to immediate sensory experience. It could be focused on a particular component, aspect, or thing, or it could be broadly on all that is immediately present. The key is that it is a total appreciation of what is without any attempt to hold onto it, letting it arise, and fall away without grasping at it or attempting to change it. The experiences can include feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment and even thoughts. But observing the thoughts as just another thing arising, and falling away, with no attempt to hold onto them, elaborate on them, judge them, or associate them with any other thoughts just letting them flow through awareness and fall away like a cloud passing over the horizon. In other words, thinking can be mindful if we are completely aware of what we are doing and not getting carried away and lost in the thoughts.

 

This is a rather idealized conception of mindfulness. In practice, one can be very mindful without coming even close to this description. This discourse should be looked on as describing the model, the ideal, with it understood that reality will in fact be a diluted or compromised version of this ideal. One can be very mindful and still judge the experience, as long as there’s a recognition that that is what is happening. One can be very mindful and still bring in memories from the past or plans for the future, as long as there’s an awareness that these are not an essential part of the experience but the minds embellishments. One can be very mindful and still

Try to maintain a feeling or keep an enjoyable experience going, as long as one recognizes that what you are doing is simply another part of present moment experience. It is even possible, albeit difficult, to daydream mindfully as long as you are completely aware that this is what you’re engaging in completely under willful control. In other words, mindfulness need not be perfect, it only experiencing things as they are, in the present moment, without judgment.

 

One problem with the definition is that it specifies the processes involved in mindfulness but neglects to specify exactly what entity is being mindful. It doesn’t specify who or what is attending, who or what is producing the purpose, who or what is not judging, who or what is having the immediate experience. When these questions arise, it’s a sign that the issue has moved from mindfulness to the spiritual side of mindfulness, who or what is aware. This is not the place for a discussion of these aspects of mindfulness. But, it is important to recognize that this definition and description of mindfulness only scratches the surface. There are deeper levels to mindfulness to be explored.

 

“Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement.” – Ellen Langer

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

Improve Cognition after Cancer Recovery with Mindfulness

Improve Cognition after Cancer Recovery with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness meditation practices enable cancer survivors to better manage cancer-related cognitive impairment. MBSR provides a creative solution for survivors whose social and occupational functioning may have been negatively impacted by cognitive difficulties.” – Shelly Johns

 

Cognitive impairments are a frequent side effect of cancer treatment. This has been dubbed “chemo brain.” Patients often refer to it as a mental cloudiness. The patients report problems including forgetting things, trouble concentrating, trouble remembering details like names and dates, trouble multi-tasking, like answering the phone while cooking, taking longer to finish things, disorganized and slower thinking, and trouble remembering common words. These cognitive impairments generally produce problems with work and even social relationships such that patients tend to isolate themselves. They can also produce treatment problems as the patients often forget to take their medications.

 

These problems result from the fact that chemotherapy, radiation therapy and many cancer drugs directly affect the nervous system. At present, there are no known treatments for these cognitive impairment side effects of chemotherapy. Contemplative practices have been shown to affect memory and have positive effects on cancer treatment and recovery.  There is some evidence that contemplative practices may be useful for the alleviation of “chemo brain” symptoms. So, it makes sense to further study the ability of mindfulness training to improve the cancer patient’s cognitive abilities.

 

In today’s Research News article “Randomized controlled pilot trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for breast and colorectal cancer survivors: effects on cancer-related cognitive impairment.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4864185/, Johns and colleagues recruited breast cancer and colorectal cancer survivors with moderate fatigue and randomly assigned them to receive either an 8-week, once a week for 2 hours, fatigue education and support or a program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with home practice. MBSR contains meditation, yoga, and body scan practices. The participants were measured before and after the 8-week treatment period and 6 months later for attentional function, mindfulness, and cognitive executive function with the Stroop Test.

 

They found that compared to baseline and the fatigue education group, the participants in the MBSR program demonstrated significant improvement in attentional function, including greater effective attentional actions and fewer attentional lapses. Further mediational analysis revealed that MBSR acted by increasing the ability to act with awareness which in turn increased attentional function. In addition, the MBSR group had significantly fewer errors on the Stroop Test indicating better cognitive function.  Importantly, the benefits of the MBSR program were not only significant at the end of training but also 6 months later.

 

These are interesting and potentially important results. The “Chemo Brain” resulting from cancer treatments produces significant degradation in the patient’s cognitive abilities. The results suggest that a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program can significantly produce lasting improvements in these degraded attentional abilities and thinking. MBSR appears to work, at least in part, by increasing the patient’s ability to act with awareness, thereby decreasing distractions and intrusions of off-topic thoughts. Cancer patients have suffered terribly from their disease and the treatments for the disease. It is heartening that a mindfulness practice can be so beneficial in relieving at least residual symptoms of “Chemo Brain.”

 

So, improve cognition after cancer recovery with mindfulness.

 

“Participation in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program yields robust and sustained improvement in cancer-related cognitive impairment, a prevalent and potentially debilitating condition that affects attention, memory and executive function in survivors” – CancerCommons

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Johns, S. A., Von Ah, D., Brown, L. F., Beck-Coon, K., Talib, T. L., Alyea, J. M., … Giesler, R. B. (2016). Randomized controlled pilot trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for breast and colorectal cancer survivors: effects on cancer-related cognitive impairment. Journal of Cancer Survivorship : Research and Practice, 10(3), 437–448. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11764-015-0494-3

 

Abstract

Purpose

Cancer-related cognitive impairment (CRCI) is a common, fatigue-related symptom that disrupts cancer survivors’ quality of life. Few interventions for CRCI exist. As part of a randomized pilot study targeting cancer-related fatigue, the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on survivors’ cognitive outcomes were investigated.

Methods

Breast and colorectal cancer survivors (n=71) with moderate-to-severe fatigue were randomized to MBSR (n=35) or a fatigue education and support (ES; n=36) condition. The Attentional Function Index (AFI) and the Stroop test were used to assess survivors’ cognitive function at baseline (T1), after the 8-week intervention period (T2), and 6 months later (T3) using intent-to-treat analysis. Mediation analyses were performed to explore mechanisms of intervention effects on cognitive functioning.

Results

MBSR participants reported significantly greater improvement on the AFI total score compared to ES participants at T2 (d=0.83, p=0.001) and T3 (d=0.55, p=0.021). MBSR also significantly outperformed ES on most AFI subscales, although both groups improved over time. MBSR produced greater Stroop accuracy rates relative to ES at T2 (r=0.340, p=0.005) and T3 (r=0.280, p=0.030), with improved accuracy over time only for the MBSR group. There were no significant differences in Stroop reaction time between groups. Improvements in mindfulness mediated the effect of group (e.g., MBSR vs. ES) on AFI total score at T2 and T3.

Conclusions

Additional randomized trials with more comprehensive cognitive measures are warranted to definitively assess the efficacy of MBSR for CRCI.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4864185/

Focus in Meditation for Cognitive Effects but Open Monitor in Meditation for Physical Effects

Focus in Meditation for Cognitive Effects but Open Monitor in Meditation for Physical Effects

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

In focused attention meditation, the focus of the mind is placed only on one thing. This implies that you have to stop everything you are doing and designate time for this type of meditation. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, your focus is neutral and receptive to anything that becomes present to you in the moment.” – Mind Body Vortex

 

Meditation 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, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving different conditions.

 

Two types of meditation are the most commonly used practices for research purposes In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, frequently the breath or a mantra, and learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise, and fall away without paying them any further attention.

 

These techniques have common properties of restful attention on the present moment, but there are large differences. These differences are likely to produce different effects on the practitioner. In today’s Research News article “A selective review of dharana and dhyana in healthy participants.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5192286/

Telles and colleagues review the published literature (eight studies) on the differences in the effects of focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation.

 

They found quite interesting differences. Focused attention meditation tended to produce greater improvements in attentional ability while open monitoring meditation tended to produce larger changes in the physiology, specifically decreased activity in the sympathetic division and increased activity in the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic division tends to produce greater physiological arousal, including heart rate and blood pressure increases while the parasympathetic division tends to produce greater physiological relaxation, including heart rate and blood pressure reductions.

 

The published research, then, reflects considerable difference in the effects of these two meditation types. It should not be surprising that practicing focusing attention results in improved attentional ability. But, the difficulty in actually focusing attention may be somewhat stressful. Simply allowing whatever arises to come into consciousness, on the other hand may be much more relaxing. The differences in the effects of these meditation techniques suggest that focused attention meditation may be more appropriate for enhancing attention and thought for perhaps the treatment of attention deficit disorder or aging produced reductions in cognition. On the other hand open monitoring meditation may be more appropriate for the treatment of stress related disorders.

 

So, focus in meditation for cognitive effects but open monitor in meditation for physical effects.

 

“Focused attention and open monitoring — these are the two flavors meditation comes in. Mix and match as you like; add whatever extra toppings you desire; you’ll still be left with focused attention and open monitoring. Sure, people claim that it is best — maybe even essential — to concentrate on this or that in order to benefit the most from meditation. Others would have us believe that open awareness/monitoring needs to be done in a certain fashion, which obviously seems to belie the point of being open to whatever.“ – Brian Hines

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

Telles, S., Singh, N., Gupta, R. K., & Balkrishna, A. (2016). A selective review of dharana and dhyana in healthy participants. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 7(4), 255–260. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaim.2016.09.004

 

Abstract

Attention is an important part of the process of meditation. Traditional Yoga texts describe two stages of meditation which follow each other in sequence. These are meditative focusing (dharana in Sanskrit) and effortless meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit). This review evaluated eight experimental studies conducted on participants in normal health, who practiced dharana and dhyana. The studies included evaluation of autonomic and respiratory variables, eLORETA and sLORETA assessments of the EEG, evoked potentials, functional magnetic resonance imaging, cancellation task performance and emotional intelligence. The studies differed in their sample size, design and the method of practicing dharana and dhyana. These factors have been detailed. The results revealed differences between dharana and dhyana, which would have been missed if the two stages of meditation had not been studied separately.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5192286/

Improve the Aging Brain’s Cognition with Mindfulness

Improve the Aging Brain’s Cognition with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“there is a small but growing body of evidence that regular meditation really can slow ageing – at least at the cellular level.” – James Kingsland

 

Human life is one of constant change. We revel in our increases in physical and mental capacities during development, but regret their decreases during aging. The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. This includes our mental abilities which decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, problem solving ability, and emotion regulation. It is inevitable and cannot be avoided. There is some hope for these age-related declines, however, as there is evidence that they can be slowed. There are some indications that physical and mental exercise can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and lower the chances of dementia. For example, contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi or qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline with aging.

 

Using modern neuroimaging techniques, scientists have been able to view the changes that occur in the nervous system with aging. In addition, they have been able to investigate various techniques that might slow the process of neurodegeneration that accompanies normal aging. They’ve found that mindfulness practices reduce the deterioration of the brain that occurs with aging restraining the loss of neural tissue. Indeed, the brains of mindfulness practitioners have been found to degenerate less with aging than non-practitioners.

 

Since the global population of the elderly is increasing at unprecedented rates, it is imperative to investigate methods to slow physical and mental aging and mitigate its effects. In today’s Research News article “Mindful Aging: The Effects of Regular Brief Mindfulness Practice on Electrophysiological Markers of Cognitive and Affective Processing in Older Adults.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241348/

Malinowski and colleagues recruited individuals between the ages of 55 and 75 years and randomly assigned them to either receive mindfulness training or to an active brain training. Mindfulness training consisted of breath following meditation practice. The brain training condition involved performing mental arithmetic problems that required effortful cognitive processing. Both mindfulness and braining training groups practiced for 10 minutes, 5 days per week, for eight weeks. Before and after training participants were measured for mindfulness, self-efficacy, and mental well-being and were assessed for cognitive and emotion regulation abilities by performance of an eStroop task while their brains’ electrical responses, Electroencephalogram (EEG), were recorded. In the eStroop task the participants viewed a computer screen where one to four words were presented simultaneously. The participants were asked to simply press one of four keys to indicate the number of words presented. There were four conditions; emotionally positive words (love), emotionally negative words (sad), emotionally neutral words (box), and incongruent words. In the incongruent condition the words, one, two, three, or four were presented, with the number of words different from the meaning of the words, e.g. the word three presented two times.

 

They found that from pre-test to post-test the mindfulness training, but not the brain training group increased in mindfulness and increased their response speed (reaction time) in the eStroop task under all conditions. So, the breath meditation increased mindfulness and made for quicker reactions in the cognitive task. The N2 negative going neural response occurring 0.27 to 0.34 seconds after the presentation of the words, was significantly stronger in the mindfulness than the brain training group. The electrical response was measured over the frontal central cortex, components of the network regulating attention. This result suggests that mindfulness training improves the brains ability to regulate attention.

 

This study is particularly strong because the control condition was active and required similar commitment of time and energy and belief that the treatment would produce improvements. As a result, the conclusions from the study are very clear. The results suggest that mindfulness training produces improved attentional ability resulting from improved neural responses. These effects were produced in an older group of participants. This suggests that mindfulness training may reduce the cognitive-attentional decline that normally occurs with aging.

 

This is an exciting proposition, that mindfulness training may improve our ability to cognitively age healthily. As the population continues to live longer and the number of older and elderly individuals increases, the problem of cognitive decline will place an increasing burden on caregivers and stress the healthcare system. So, being able to delay and reduce this decline could have profound effects on individuals and society. Hence, promoting mindfulness training for the elderly could reap substantial benefits for the elderly and the system that supports them in their declining years..

 

So, improve the aging brain’s cognition with mindfulness.

 

“Our modern assumptions, ideas, beliefs, and cultural narratives about growing old are too small for us to inhabit. Our thinking about aging is often hijacked by fear, negativity, and ageism. The authentic experience of aging is a source wonder, curiosity, and fascination. Mindful aging is a skillful means to embrace the process of growing older in order to cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural flow of all life.” – Brian Alger

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

Malinowski, P., Moore, A. W., Mead, B. R., & Gruber, T. (2017). Mindful Aging: The Effects of Regular Brief Mindfulness Practice on Electrophysiological Markers of Cognitive and Affective Processing in Older Adults. Mindfulness, 8(1), 78–94. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-015-0482-8

 

Abstract

There is growing interest in the potential benefits of mindfulness meditation practices in terms of counteracting some of the cognitive effects associated with aging. Pursuing this question, the aim of the present study was to investigate the influence of mindfulness training on executive control and emotion regulation in older adults, by means of studying behavioral and electrophysiological changes. Participants, 55 to 75 years of age, were randomly allocated to an 8-week mindful breath awareness training group or an active control group engaging in brain training exercises. Before and after the training period, participants completed an emotional-counting Stroop task, designed to measure attentional control and emotion regulation processes. Concurrently, their brain activity was measured by means of 64-channel electroencephalography. The results show that engaging in just over 10 min of mindfulness practice five times per week resulted in significant improvements in behavioral (response latency) and electrophysiological (N2 event-related potential) measures related to general task performance. Analyses of the underlying cortical sources (Variable Resolution Electromagnetic Tomography, VARETA) indicate that this N2-related effect is primarily associated with changes in the right angular gyrus and other areas of the dorsal attention network. However, the study did not find the expected specific improvements in executive control and emotion regulation, which may be due to the training instructions or the relative brevity of the intervention. Overall, the results indicate that engaging in mindfulness meditation training improves the maintenance of goal-directed visuospatial attention and may be a useful strategy for counteracting cognitive decline associated with aging.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241348/

 

 

Improve the Symptoms of Stress with Mindfulness

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Improve the Symptoms of Stress with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Through mindfulness, individuals start to see their thoughts as less powerful. These distorted thoughts – such as “I always make mistakes” or “I’m a horrible person” – start to hold less weight. We ‘experience’ thoughts and other sensations, but we aren’t carried away by them. We just watch them come and go.” – William Marchand

 

Stress is universal. We are constantly under some form of stress. In fact, if we don’t have enough stress, we seek out more. Moderate stress can be a good thing promoting growth and flourishing. But, it must be moderate or what is called the optimum level of stress. Too little or too much stress can be damaging. Unfortunately for many of us living in a competitive, multitasking, modern environment stress is all too often higher than desirable. In addition, many of the normal mechanisms for dealing with stress have been eliminated. The business of modern life removes opportunities for rest, extra sleep, and leisure activities. Instead people are working extra hours and limiting or passing up entirely vacations to stay competitive. Persistently high levels of stress are damaging and can directly produce disease or debilitation increasing susceptibility to other diseases. Indeed, chronic stress has been associated with depression, anxiety, burnout, suicide attempts, poor immune functioning, and cardiovascular disorders.

 

It is beyond the ability of the individual to change the environment to reduce stress, so it is important that methods be found to reduce the individual’s responses to stress; to make the individual more resilient when high levels of stress occur. Contemplative practices including meditation practice have been shown to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress. Because of their ability to relieve stress, mindfulness trainings are increasingly being practiced by individuals and are even being encouraged in some workplaces. But, some other treatments such as exercise or biofeedback may also be effective.

 

In today’s Research News article “A RCT Comparing Daily Mindfulness Meditations, Biofeedback Exercises, and Daily Physical Exercise on Attention Control, Executive Functioning, Mindful Awareness, Self-Compassion, and Worrying in Stressed Young Adults.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1466297833394138/?type=3&theater

or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5010624/

de Bruin and colleagues recruited young adults, aged 18-40 years, who were high in perceived stress and randomly assigned them to either a daily mindfulness meditations, daily heart rate variability biofeedback, or daily physical exercise groups. The participants were provided a 2-hour orientation instruction and then practiced daily over 5 weeks for 10 to 20 minutes per day on an individualized practice plan. They were measured before and after treatment and 6-weeks later for attention control, executive function, mindfulness, self-compassion, and worry.

 

They found that all three interventions produced significant improvement from the pretest to posttest in attention control, executive function, mindfulness, self-compassion, and worry. These effects remained significant at the 6-week follow-up, suggesting lasting effects. All practices had moderate to large effects sizes. Surprisingly there were no significant differences between the three different practices as all produced significant improvements in the measures.

 

It is interesting that all three practices produced significant increases in mindfulness. This would be expected for the mindfulness meditation group but is somewhat surprising for the heart rate variability biofeedback and physical exercise groups. This fact may explain why all of the practices were beneficial. It suggests that improved mindfulness is responsible for the improvements in attention control, executive function, self-compassion, and worry. This seems reasonable, give that mindfulness training has been shown previously to improve attention control, executive function, self-compassion, and worry. Hence it appears that there are a number of practices that can improve the psychological conditions of stressed young adults and that they act by increasing mindfulness.

 

So, improve the symptoms of stress with mindfulness.

 

“mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. These cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies.” Daphne Davis

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

De Bruin, E. I., van der Zwan, J. E., & Bögels, S. M. (2016). A RCT Comparing Daily Mindfulness Meditations, Biofeedback Exercises, and Daily Physical Exercise on Attention Control, Executive Functioning, Mindful Awareness, Self-Compassion, and Worrying in Stressed Young Adults. Mindfulness, 7(5), 1182–1192. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0561-5

 

Abstract

Our Western society is characterized by multitasking, competition, and constant time pressure. Negative effects of stress for the individual (anxiety, depression, somatic complaints) and for organizations and society (costs due to work absence) are very high. Thus, time-efficient self-help interventions to address these issues are necessary. This study assessed the effects of daily mindfulness meditations (MM) versus daily heart rate variability biofeedback (HRV-BF) and daily physical exercise (PE) on attention control, executive functioning, mindful awareness, self-compassion, and worrying. Young adults (n = 75, age range 18 to 40) with elevated stress levels were randomized to MM, HRV-BF, or PE, and measurements were taken at pre-test, post-test, and follow-up. Interventions in all three groups were self-guided and lasted for 5 weeks. Generalized estimating equation analyses showed that overall, all three interventions were effective and did not differ from each other. However, practice time differed between groups, with participants in the PE group practicing much more than participants in the other two groups. Therefore, additional analyses were carried out in two subsamples. The optimal dose sample included only those participants who practiced for at least 70 % of the total prescribed time. In the equal dose sample, home practice intensity was equal for all three groups. Again, the effects of the three interventions did not differ. In conclusion, MM, HRV-BF, and PE are all effective self-help methods to improve attention control, executive functioning, mindful awareness, self-compassion, and worrying, and mindfulness meditation was not found to be more effective than HRV-biofeedback or physical exercise for these cognitive processes.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5010624/

 

Meditation Improves Well-Being but How You Meditate Can Make a Difference

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“science confirms the experience of millions of practitioners: meditation will keep you healthy, help prevent multiple diseases, make you happier, and improve your performance in basically any task, physical or mental.” – Giovanni Dienstmann

 

Meditation 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, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving different conditions.

 

Four types of meditation are the most commonly used practices for research purposes. In body scan meditation, the individual focuses on the feelings and sensations of specific parts of the body, systematically moving attention from one area to another. Loving kindness meditation is designed to develop kindness and compassion to oneself and others. The individual systematically pictures different individuals from self, to close friends, to enemies and wishes them happiness, well-being, safety, peace, and ease of well-being. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise, and fall away without paying them any further attention.

 

These techniques have common properties of restful focused attention, but there are large differences. These differences are likely to produce different effects on the practitioner. In today’s Research News article “Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across 9 Months of Training.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1440840735939848/?type=3&theater

or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9

Kok and Singer examine the similarities and differences between the effects of body scan meditation, loving kindness meditation, focused attention meditation, and open monitoring meditation. They recruited normal adults aged between 20 to 55 and randomly assigned them to three different orders of conditions in a complex research design. Training in each meditation type was conducted for 13 weeks, including a 3-day retreat at the beginning. The participants reported daily on their feeling states, contents of thought, meta-cognition, and 2 minutes of free writing about their thoughts and feelings.

 

All four meditation practices contain a component of focused breathing meditation, so it’s effects can’t be separated from the other three types. They found that all four meditation practices, consistent with the published literature, produced significant increases in positive feelings, focus on the present moment, and body awareness and decreases in mind wandering.

 

There were also considerable differences in the effects of the meditation practices. Body scan meditation, not surprisingly, produced the greatest increase in body awareness and the greatest decrease in thoughts about past, future, and others, and negative thoughts, in other words less mind wandering. Loving kindness meditation produced the greatest increase in positive thoughts and warm feelings about self and others. Open monitoring meditation produced the greatest increase in thought awareness and decrease in distraction by thoughts. These outcomes are consistent with the targeted contents of the practices.

 

It appears that all meditation types have very positive consequences for the practitioner and at the same time each has its own strengths. These strengths then can be taken advantage of to affect targeted issues for the practitioner. If the problem with the individual is a lack of body awareness then body scan meditation is called for, if it’s negative feelings about self and others, then loving kindness meditation would be best, while if it’s with meta-cognition such as awareness of thoughts, then open monitoring meditation should be the choice. In this way meditation practice, can have even greater benefit for the individual.

 

Regardless, improve well-being with meditation.

 

If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both), rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, or at least paying attention to your thoughts and letting them go without reacting to them. If the research is right, just a few minutes of meditation may make a big difference.” – Alice Walton

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Kok, B.E. & Singer, T. Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across 9 Months of Training. Mindfulness (2016). doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9

 

Abstract

Despite increasing interest in the effects of mental training practices such as meditation, there is much ambiguity regarding whether and to what extent the various types of mental practice have differential effects on psychological change. To address this gap, we compare the effects of four common meditation practices on measures of state change in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition, and interoception. In the context of a 9-month mental training program called the ReSource Project, 229 mid-life adults (mean age 41) provided daily reports before and after meditation practice. Participants received training in the following three successive modules: the first module (presence) included breathing meditation and body scan, the second (affect) included loving-kindness meditation, and the third (perspective) included observing-thought meditation. Using multilevel modeling, we found that body scan led to the greatest state increase in interoceptive awareness and the greatest decrease in thought content, loving-kindness meditation led to the greatest increase in feelings of warmth and positive thoughts about others, and observing-thought meditation led to the greatest increase in meta-cognitive awareness. All practices, including breathing meditation, increased positivity of affect, energy, and present focus and decreased thought distraction. Complementary network analysis of intervariate relationships revealed distinct phenomenological clusters of psychological change congruent with the content of each practice. These findings together suggest that although different meditation practices may have common beneficial effects, each practice can also be characterized by a distinct short-term psychological fingerprint, the latter having important implications for the use of meditative practices in different intervention contexts and with different populations.

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9

 

Pay Attention with Mindfulness

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“The quality of your attention determines whether you are present and alert, or mentally and/or emotionally distracted. The good news is that it’s possible to train your attention and gain the associated benefits, and practicing mindfulness offers one of the most accessible and effective approaches.” – Deborah David

 

One of the primary effects of mindfulness training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of mindfulness training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. The importance of heightened attentional ability to the individual’s ability to navigate the demands of complex modern life cannot be overstated. It helps at work, in relationships, or simply driving a car. Being effective socially demands accurately assessing the emotional states of other people. This requires attention to the non-verbal subtle signals of facial expression, body posture, and gestures. In this context, attention to these subtleties is a prerequisite for appropriate interactions. As a result, mindfulness improves social interactions.

 

There is evidence that mindfulness training improves attention by altering the brain. It appears That mindfulness training increases the size, connectivity, and activity of areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention. A common method to study the activity of the nervous system is to measure the electrical signal at the scalp above brain regions. Changes in this activity are measurable with mindfulness training. One method to observe information processing in the brain is to measure the changes in the electrical activity that occur in response to specific stimuli. These are called evoked potentials or ERPs. The signal following a stimulus changes over time. The fluctuations of the signal after specific periods of time are thought to measure different aspects of the nervous system’s processing of the stimulus.

 

The N100 response in the evoked potential (ERP) is a negative going response occurring around a tenth of a second following a visual stimulus presentation. The N100 response has been associated with the engagement of visual attention. So, the N100 response is often used as a measure of brain attentional engagement with the larger the negative change the greater the attentional focus. The N200 response in the evoked potential (ERP) generally follows shortly after the N100 response. It is a negative change that is maximally measured over the frontal lobe. The N200 response has been associated with the resolution of conflicting response expectations. The P300 response occurs around a quarter of a second following the stimulus presentation. It is a positive change that is maximally measured over the central frontal lobe. The P300 response has been associated with holding back expected actions (response inhibition).

 

The relationship of mindfulness to the brain’s processing of social/emotional stimuli was investigated in today’s Research News article “Trait Mindfulness Predicts Efficient Top-Down Attention to and Discrimination of Facial Expressions.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1433674869989768/?type=3&theater

or see summary below. Quaglia and colleagues recruited college students and measured their levels of mindfulness, social anxiety, and attentional control. The participants’ EEG was measured while performing a go/no-go task in which they were asked to press a button to a picture of a face if it expressed a target emotion (happy, neutral, or fearful) and refrain from responding if a different emotion was being portrayed.

 

They found that the higher the levels of the students’ mindfulness the faster they responded to the faces. In addition, they found that the higher the levels of mindfulness the larger the N100 and N200 responses. With the P300 response, high levels of mindfulness were only found to be associated with larger responses on no-go trials, when they withheld a response to a non-target emotion. There was no difference in the P300 response to go trials.

 

These results suggest that mindfulness improves attention to emotionally significant stimuli and does so by heightening the brain’s response to these stimuli.. This is supported by the faster response times by highly mindful participants. In, addition, the neural responses indicate better processing with the heightened N100 and N200 responses indicating greater attention and better decision processes while the heightened P300 response indicating better ability to withhold responses to stimuli when appropriate. Hence, the results suggest that attention to and responding to emotionally significant stimuli is improved with mindfulness. This may be one of the mechanisms by which mindfulness improves emotion regulation in general.

 

So, pay attention with mindfulness.

 

“Mindfulness refines our attention so that we can connect more fully and directly with whatever life brings. So many times our perception of what is happening is distorted by bias, habits, fears, or desires. Mindfulness helps us see through these and be much more aware of what actually is.” – Sharon Salzberg

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Jordan T. Quaglia, Robert J. Goodman, Kirk Warren Brown. Trait Mindfulness Predicts Efficient Top-Down Attention to and Discrimination of Facial Expressions. J. Pers. Volume 84, Issue 3, June 2016, Pages 393–404

 

Abstract

In social situations, skillful regulation of emotion and behavior depends on efficiently discerning others’ emotions. Identifying factors that promote timely and accurate discernment of facial expressions can therefore advance understanding of social emotion regulation and behavior. The present research examined whether trait mindfulness predicts neural and behavioral markers of early top-down attention to, and efficient discrimination of, socioemotional stimuli. Attention-based event-related potentials (ERPs) and behavioral responses were recorded while participants (N = 62; White; 67% female; Mage= 19.09 years, SD = 2.14 years) completed an emotional go/no-go task involving happy, neutral, and fearful facial expressions. Mindfulness predicted larger (more negative) N100 and N200 ERP amplitudes to both go and no-go stimuli. Mindfulness also predicted faster response time that was not attributable to a speed-accuracy trade-off. Significant relations held after accounting for attentional control or social anxiety. This study adds neurophysiological support for foundational accounts that mindfulness entails moment-to-moment attention with lower tendencies toward habitual patterns of responding. Mindfulness may enhance the quality of social behavior in socioemotional contexts by promoting efficient top-down attention to and discrimination of others’ emotions, alongside greater monitoring and inhibition of automatic response tendencies.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.shsu.edu/doi/10.1111/jopy.12167/full

 

 

Improve Attention by Reducing Mind Wandering with Mindfulness

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. These cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies.” – Daphne Davis

 

Human life is one of constant change. We revel in our increases in physical and mental capacities during development, but regret their decreases during aging. The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. This includes our mental abilities which decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, and problem solving ability. It is inevitable and cannot be avoided. There is some hope for age related cognitive decline, however, as there is evidence that it can be slowed. There are some indications that physical and mental exercise can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and lower the chances of dementia. For example, contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi or qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline with aging. Indeed, mindfulness practices have been shown to improve cognitive processes.

 

We spend a tremendous amount of time with our minds wandering and not on the task or the environment at hand. We daydream, plan for the future, review the past, ruminate on our failures, exalt in our successes. In fact, we spend almost half of our waking hours off task with our mind wandering. Mindfulness is the antithesis of mind wandering. When we’re mindful, we’re paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment. In fact, the more mindful we are the less the mind wanders and mindfulness training reduces mind wandering. You’d think that if we spend so much time with the mind wandering it must be enjoyable. But, in fact research has shown that when our mind is wandering we are actually unhappier than when we are paying attention to what is at hand.

 

It is unclear as to what role mind wandering plays in age related cognitive decline and what influence mindfulness may have on it. This question was explored in today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness and the wandering mind: Implications for attentional control in older adults.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1426451347378787/?type=3&theater

or see summary below, Fountain-Zaragoza and colleagues recruited 60-74-year old participants and measured mindfulness, mind wandering, inhibitory and sustained attention, proactive attention, reactive attention and working memory. They found that in these elderly participants the higher the levels of mindfulness the lower the levels of task-unrelated thoughts and task-related interference and the higher the levels of reactive attention. That is high mindfulness was associated with less mind wandering and greater attention in reaction to the environment. It was also found that mindfulness appeared to affect proactive attention by way of mind wandering particularly in participants with low levels of working memory.

 

These results suggest that in older adults, mindfulness helps to control mind wandering, but when the mind wanders mindfulness appears to be able to elicit proactive attentional mechanisms. That is to work ahead of time to insure, that attention is focused on the task at hand in spite of the tendency for the mind to wander. In other words, mindfulness appears to keep the individual attending appropriately by reducing mind wandering and by working ahead of time to counteract the effects of mind wandering.

 

So, improve attention by reducing mind wandering with mindfulness.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

“Mindfulness is a valuable practice for improving the cognitive symptoms of depression, such as distorted thinking and distractibility. It helps individuals recognize these more subtle symptoms, realize that thoughts are not facts and refocus their attention to the present.”Margarita Tartakovsk

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Fountain-Zaragoza S, Londerée A, Whitmoyer P, Prakash RS. Dispositional mindfulness and the wandering mind: Implications for attentional control in older adults. Conscious Cogn. 2016 Aug;44:193-204. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.08.003.

 

Highlights

  • Mindfulnessand task-unrelated thought are negatively associated in older adults.
  • Mindfulness is differentially related to types of attentional control.
  • No association was found between mind-wandering and cognitive performance.
  • Task-unrelated thought mediates mindfulness-proactive control associations.

Abstract

Age-related cognitive decline brings decreases in functional status. Dispositional mindfulness, the tendency towards present-moment attention, is hypothesized to correspond with enhanced attention, whereas mind-wandering may be detrimental to cognition. The relationships among mindfulness, task-related and task-unrelated thought, and attentional control performance on Go/No-Go and Continuous Performance tasks were examined in older adults. Dispositional mindfulness was negatively associated with task-unrelated thought and was positively associated with reactive control, but not proactive control or Go/No-Go performance. Although mind-wandering was not directly associated with performance, task-unrelated thought mediated the mindfulness-proactive control relation. Fewer task-unrelated thoughts were associated with lower proactive control. Interestingly, this effect was moderated by working memory such that it was present for those with low-average, but not high, working memory. This study highlights the importance of dispositional mindfulness and mind-wandering propensity in accounting for individual differences in attentional control in older adults, providing important targets for future cognitive remediation interventions.

Get More Attentive with Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“We practice meditation in the end not to become great meditators but to have a different life. As we deepen the skills of concentration, mindfulness, and compassion, we find we have less stress, more fulfillment, more insight, and vastly more happiness. We transform our lives.” – Sharon Salzberg

 

In modern everyday life, we are constantly bombarded with a myriad of stimuli, from music, movies, TV, traffic noise, games, telephone calls, texts, emails, tweets, posts, etc. The generations who have grown up in the midst of this cacophony, claim to have developed multitasking skills, such that they can simultaneously work with multiple tasks and sources of information. At first glance they appear to have developed useful skills that the older generation can only marvel at. But, upon closer inspection of the abilities of the multitaskers, it has been found that they actually have impaired attentional abilities and are more easily distracted from what they’re doing. In other words, the multitasking has damaged their ability to focus on any one thing.

 

Mindfulness training may be an antidote to the impaired attention and distractibility of the multitaskers. One of the primary effects of meditation training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of meditation training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Hence it would seem that mindfulness training would strengthen the exact capacities that are weakened by chronic multitasking.

 

There are, however, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving attention and executive function. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise and fall away without paying them any further attention.

 

In today’s Research News article “Attentional orienting and executive control are affected by different types of meditation practice.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/pb.627681673922429.-2207520000.1480417754./1397217773635478/?type=3&theater

or see summary below. Tsai and Chou recruited meditators who practiced focused attention meditation, or who practiced open monitoring meditation, and meditation naive controls. They measured mindfulness and then compared the three groups for their performance on a visual attention task. The task measured three separate components of attention, alerting, orienting, and executive control (filtering irrelevant stimuli). As expected, the two meditation groups had significantly higher levels of mindfulness than the control group. In regards to attention, the meditators demonstrated superior ability to orient and to filter out irrelevant stimuli (executive control). They found that the higher the level of mindfulness, the better the meditators were in executive control. Finally, they found that the open monitoring meditators were significantly superior to the focused meditators in their ability to orient to the attentional stimulus.

 

In a second experiment Tsai and Chou manipulate meditation practice to see if the practice caused the improvements in attention. They recruited meditation naïve college students who were randomly assigned to receive either 3 months of focused attention meditation training or no training. The students were measured on the attentional task both before and after the 3-month training. They found that the focused attention meditation produced a significant improvement in the ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli (executive control) and the higher the level of mindfulness, the better the meditators were in executive control. Thus they demonstrated that meditation practice causes improvements in the attentional ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli.

 

The results suggest the obvious that practicing paying attention improves paying attention. But, less obvious, is that the practice improves the abilities to shift attention when needed, orienting, and to not be distracted by things that are not relevant to the task at hand, executive function. This latter ability appears to be better developed by open monitoring meditation than by focused attention meditation. This would seem counter intuitive as one would think that part of practicing focusing would be to learn to ignore non-focal stimuli. In fact, it did in comparison to non-meditators. But, surprisingly, open monitoring meditation was superior. It may be that practicing just allowing things to be as they are without letting them attract attention may be the better way to learn to ignore distractors. Being used to not responding appears to make the individual better at not responding when needed.

 

So, get more attentive with meditation.

 

“The practice of insight meditation revolves around the art of meditative attention. Its basic tool is ‘bare’ or primary attention which uncovers or lays bare things as they really are. In this way, a non-reactive, unconditioned awareness is acquired that leads to insight knowledge.” – Ven Pannyavaro

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Tsai MH, Chou WL. Attentional orienting and executive control are affected by different types of meditation practice. Conscious Cogn. 2016 Oct 3;46:110-126. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.09.020.

 

Highlights

  • We studied the relationship between meditationskills and functions of attention.
  • Focused attention meditation only improved execution control function.
  • Open monitoring meditation improved execution control and orientation functions.

Abstract

Several studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of meditation on attention. The present study investigated the relationship between focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation skills and the various functions of attention. In Experiment 1, we executed theattention network test and compared the performance of experts on dandao meditation with that of ordinary people on this test. The results indicated that the experts specializing in OM meditation demonstrated greater attentional orienting ability compared with those specializing in FA meditation and the control group. In addition, both expert groups registered improvements in their executive control abilities compared with the control group. In Experiment 2, we trained beginners in FA meditation for 3months. The results showed that the experimental group exhibited significantly enhanced executive control ability. We infer that FA meditation skills promote executive control function and OM meditation skills promote both executive control and attentional orienting functions.

 

Think About It: Mindfulness May Improve Cognitive Functions

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.” – Leah Weiss

 

Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” In its most basic form, mindfulness training is attention training. As a result, it’s been assumed that mindfulness training would improve attentional ability. It was also assumed that the ability to focus and attend without mind wandering would improve higher level thinking, cognition, sometimes known as executive function.

 

Although there have been a number of studies to investigate the relationship of mindfulness to attentional ability and executive function, they have varied widely in the form of mindfulness training and the methods to measure attention and executive function. In today’s Research News article “Cognitive effects of MBSR/MBCT: A systematic review of neuropsychological outcomes.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1343930858964170/?type=3&theater

or see summary below. Lao and colleagues review the published research literature on the effects of mindfulness training on attention and executive function. They restricted the reviewed studies to only those that studied adults, who were randomly assigned to either an 8 to 12-week mindfulness training or a control condition, that employed either Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as the mindfulness training methods, and that measured attention and/or executive function with an objective measure. The literature search produced 18 articles that met all of the criteria. Eleven of the studies used healthy adults while the other 7 were either actively depressed or in remission patients.

 

They found that the studies that investigated attentional or executive attentional abilities only one had a statistically significant improvement in attention from mindfulness training, although all the rest showed mean attentional improvement that was not statistically significant. This contrasted to previous reviews that found significant effects of mindfulness training on attentional ability. But, many of the studies included in these other reviews were not randomized but compared long-term meditators to novices. This suggests that improvement in attentional ability may not result from short-term practice, but require long-term mindfulness training to develop.

 

Similarly, they found that there were mixed findings for higher level thinking, executive functions, with some studies finding significant results while others finding positive changes on the average, but that were not statistically significant. There were, however, significant effects on the awareness of awareness, meta awareness, and the ability to alter thinking, cognitive flexibility. These are significant as they suggest that even though short-term practice was involved, the highest levels of cognitive processing are improved with mindfulness training. Finally, they found that mindfulness training produced statistically significant improvements is memory function, particularly short-term, working, memory.

 

This literature summary, however, was not a meta-analysis where the results of multiple studies are summed and statistically evaluated. Rather Lao and colleagues simply reported on the statistical significance of individual studies. This process lacks the statistical power of a meta-analysis. Since many of the findings were in the direction of improvement, a meta-analysis may well have shown significant overall effects for mindfulness training where few or none were present in the individual studies. Hence, the literature summary was able to detect several significant cognitive and memory effects of mindfulness training, but the jury is still out on its ability to affect other executive function and attentional abilities.

 

So, think about it: mindfulness may improve cognitive functions.

 

“Cultivating mindfulness is not an easy task, but with persistence and practice we can make significant changes in the way we use our attention. We can improve concentration, our intimate relationships, our spiritual practice, and our overall mental health. What’s at stake is nothing less than our experience of life itself.” – ToDo Institute

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Lao SA, Kissane D, Meadows G. Cognitive effects of MBSR/MBCT: A systematic review of neuropsychological outcomes. Conscious Cogn. Volume 45, October 2016, Pages 109–123, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2016.08.017

 

Highlights

  • Review of evidence for whether MBSR and MBCT improve cognitive performance.
  • Attention and executive functions were not improved through MBSR/MBCT.
  • Preliminary evidence for working memory, meta-awareness and cognitive flexibility improvements.

Abstract

Mindfulness is theorised to improve attention regulation and other cognitive processes. This systematic review examines whether 8-week standardised and manualised mindfulness training programs such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) enhances attention, memory and executive function abilities measured by objective neuropsychological tests. Seven databases were searched resulting in 18 studies meeting inclusion criteria for review. Overall studies did not support attention or executive function improvements. We found preliminary evidence for improvements in working memory and autobiographical memory as well as cognitive flexibility and meta-awareness. Short-term mindfulness meditation training did not enhance theorised attentional pathways. Results call into question the theoretical underpinnings of mindfulness, further highlighting the need for a comprehensive theoretical framework.