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To err is human, but for organizations like hospitals even small errors can cost lives. Organizations try to anticipate and avoid errors, and high-stake demands to not err can motivate employees to hide mistakes when they occur. People who are more “authentic” may be less likely to hide their errors because their self-worth is less dependent on what others think of them.
Mindfulness may aid authenticity by facilitating greater self-awareness and self-acceptance, thereby enabling people to act in accord with their values.
Choi et al. [Journal of Occupational Health Psychology] explored how changes in mindfulness affect authenticity and error hiding. They also studied the effects of mindfulness training compared to exercise or a wait-list control on mindfulness, authenticity, error hiding, and qualitative interview content.
The researchers randomly assigned 230 employees (94% female; age range=25-54 years; 35% held front-line clinical roles) from four Canadian hospitals to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Pilates training, or a wait-list control.
The 8-week MBSR program was modified so that weekly group-based classes were one hour long. Pilates exercise training was also taught in a series of 8 one-hour weekly group sessions and was designed to improve core strength, balance, flexibility, and relaxation.
Participants were assessed at baseline, post-intervention, and one-month follow-up on measures of mindfulness (5 items from the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale), authentic functioning (12 items from the Authentic Functioning Scale) and error hiding (3 items from the Error Orientation and Motivation Scale).
The authentic functioning measure included items like “I frequently pretend to enjoy something when in actuality I really don’t.” The error hiding measure included items like “I do what I can to make sure that no one knows I make mistakes.”
The results show that all three groups showed increases in mindfulness scores over time but there were no significant between-group differences. The MBSR group showed significantly greater increases in authentic functioning than both comparison groups at post-intervention and follow-up. There were no significant differences in error hiding over time or between conditions.
The researchers then examined the interrelationship between changes in variables over time regardless of group assignment. They found that the rate of increase in mindfulness correlated with the rate of increase in authentic functioning (r = .76), which in turn correlated with the rate of decrease in error hiding (r = -.45).
A qualitative analysis of post-intervention interviews with MBSR and Pilates participants showed increases in self-acceptance, self-awareness, self-compassion, self-esteem, and self-determination. There were dramatic between-group differences in how often these themes were reported. For example, 71% of the MBSR group reported improvements in attention and awareness, while only 21% of the Pilates exercise group did.
Similarly 50% of the MBSR group reported greater life fulfillment, while 0% of the Pilates group did. The same magnitude of differences occurred with greater reports of improved work-related outcomes, interpersonal effects, emotional regulation, and relationship with oneself in the MBSR group.
The study shows MBSR is more effective in increasing authentic functioning than Pilates exercise or a wait-list control. There was no evidence MBSR reduces error hiding, but the error hiding measure used was probably too brief to show much variability in scores. It also only measured what people were willing to say about how they viewed making errors, and did not measure actual errors, either hidden or unhidden.
The study is limited by its reliance on self-report measures, and the fact that qualitative analysis raters were not blinded to condition.
Choi, E., Leroy, H., Johnson, A., & Nguyen, H. (2022). Flaws and all: How mindfulness reduces error hiding by enhancing authentic functioning. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.
Link to study
Findings from several pilot studies have led many to believe that just 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can induce measurable brain structural changes. These changes, if true, would be important to highlight the mechanisms underlying gains in attention and emotion regulation after individuals participate in MBSR.
MBSR studies that show structural brain changes, however, rely on small participant samples and either use participants as their own controls or lack active controls. Such preliminary study designs tend to err on the side of detecting effects that are not always genuine or robust.
Kral et al. [Science Advances] attempted to replicate the previous findings that showed brain structural changes occurring after MBSR. The investigators pooled Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) data from two previously published studies that had sufficient sample sizes and used randomization to groups as well as an active control comparison condition. Pooling data from two studies can increase power to detect significant brain change differences by study group.
The researchers pooled then analyzed data from two published studies (N=218, average age = 46; 61% female; 84% Caucasian). Participants were drawn from a non-patient population and were meditation naïve. They were randomly assigned to a standard 8-week MBSR program, a Health Education Program, or a wait-list control. MBSR and Health Education
Programs were matched on the number and length of group classes and the amount of homework assigned. The Health Education Program included exercise, music therapy, and nutrition education and practice.
Participants were assessed at baseline and post-intervention on a variety of psychological measures including the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, and on MRI scans that yielded brain structural measures of gray matter density, gray matter volume, and cortical thickness. Brain regions of interest included the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, posterior parietal cortex, temporal-parietal junction, caudate, and insula.
The pooled results showed no significant between-group differences on any brain structural changes in the areas of interest. The only significant result was an association between the amount of MBSR home practice and reduced right amygdala volume (partial η2=0.08), but there was no significant group x home practice time interaction.
While brain structure remained unchanged, previously published data from these studies showed significant between-group differences in mindfulness, psychological well-being, and brain region functional connectivity.
This replication analysis of pooled data from two controlled trials does not support results from previous studies showing that 8-weeks of MBSR induces structural brain changes. The study does not rule out the possibility that longer amounts of mindfulness practice, beyond eight weeks, may induce structural brain changes.
The study is important in that it underscores the importance of conducting well-controlled replication studies before pilot study results can be interpreted with confidence.
Kral, T. R. A., Davis, K., Korponay, C., Hirshberg, M. J., Hoel, R., Tello, L. Y., Goldman, R. I., Rosenkranz, M. A., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2022). Absence of structural brain changes from mindfulness-based stress reduction: Two combined randomized controlled trials. Science Advances.
Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and environments turn the genes of our fixed DNA “on” or “off” to produce proteins and so alter cellular activity. NF-κB (Nuclear Factor kappa B) refers to a family of naturally occurring protein transcription factors that activate DNA to regulate our immune cells.
In response to stress in humans and other animals, there is often increased NF-κB activity that functions as an evolved inflammatory response to address the physical injury often accompanying stress.
Prior research shows that mindfulness training can down-regulate pro-inflammatory gene expression in samples experiencing elevated stress including lonely older adults, breast cancer survivors, and people with sleep disorders.
Dutcher et al. [Brain, Behavior, and Immunity] conducted a randomized controlled trial to test whether mindfulness training down-regulates pro-inflammatory gene expression in elevated stress adults who lack pre-existing medical conditions.
The researchers randomly assigned 100 generally healthy call-center customer service employees (average age= 34 years; 67% female; 64% Caucasian) who reported elevated subjective levels of stress to a mindfulness training or active control condition.
Participants listened to 10-20-minute daily audio lessons on their smartphones across 30 days. Compliance was high, with each groups completing 97% of their smartphone assignments.
The mindfulness group listened to audio content of the Headspace app basics program that offers guided mindful awareness practices. The control group listened to audio content for a similar amount of time that focused on problem solving, planning, analytic thinking, self-reflection, and guided imagery. This comparator was intended to also reduce levels of perceived stress.
Participants completed a perceived stress scale and donated blood samples at baseline and one-week post-intervention. RNA was extracted from blood samples and analyzed for gene expression patterns.
The results showed both the mindfulness group (d = 0.87) and the active control group (d = 0.86) showed significant large-sized reductions in subjectively reported stress. There was no significant between-group difference.
The mindfulness group showed a greater reduction in gene activation in the pro-inflammatory NF-κB pathway than did controls (d = -0.30). The effect size for the difference in gene activation between groups was small.
This human subjects trial showed both mindfulness training and psychoeducation apps reduce subjectively reported stress levels in people who are generally healthy and employed yet with elevated stress. Only the mindfulness group showed a significant reduction in pro-inflammatory gene expression activity. This finding is potentially important because elevated inflammation is associated with a variety of physical and mental illnesses.
The study is limited by its lack of long-term follow-up as well as a lack of a waitlist control to account for extraneous factors influencing genomic activity.
Dutcher, J. M., Cole, S. W., Williams, A. C., & Creswell, J. D. (2022). Smartphone mindfulness meditation training reduces Pro-inflammatory gene expression in stressed adults: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 103, 171–177.
Smartphone apps are handy for collecting data as well as for delivering intervention content. This opens the possibility of collecting objective data from large samples of participants without tying up limited research laboratory time and budgets.
Axelsen et al. [BMC Psychology] tested the effect of smartphone app-based mindfulness training against app-based music listening on attention and cognitive working memory in a large sample of business employees. A novelty of this study was the use of smartphone-based cognitive games to assess changes in participant attention and working memory.
The researchers used social media ads to recruit 623 Danish business employees to participate in a stress-reduction study. Participants were randomly assigned to a mindfulness, music-listening, or wait-list control condition. After excluding drop-outs and participants with incomplete data, data were analyzed from a sample of 459 participants (average age = 39 years; 50% male).
Drop-out and noncompletion rates were similar for the mindfulness (32%) and music (29%) groups, and lower for the wait-list controls (14%).
The mindfulness group listened to audio lessons on the Headspace apps basics program for 10 minutes daily for 30 days. The music group listened to music selections from four playlists (“focus,” “binaural beats,” “piano, “Low-Fi”) for 10 minutes daily for 30 days.
Prior studies show that music listening can improve sustained attention and reduce mental fatigue, while listening to binaural beats in the beta wave range can improve mood and vigilance.
Participants completed baseline and post-intervention measures using a perceived stress scale and two smartphone games related to cognitive performance. The “Go Sushi Go” game served as a measure sustained attention, that is, the ability to maintain focus on a task over time. Whenever participants saw an image of fresh sushi, they were to tap the screen, and whenever they saw a piece of spoiled sushi, they were to do nothing.
The “Animal Parade” game served as a measure of working memory, that is, holding previously observed information in mind and then recalling that information. As images of animals floated by one at a time, participants tapped the screen whenever an image was the exact same they saw two animals before that image. Participants earned points for correct answers that they could then use to access new “worlds” within the app.
Results showed both the mindfulness (d = 0.67) and the music (d = 0.60) groups experienced decreased perceived stress, while the control group did not (η2p = 0.05). The mindfulness (d = -0.8) and music (d = -0.3) groups showed improved sustained attention scores on the “Go Sushi Go” game but the control group did not (η2p = 0.07); score improvement in the mindfulness group was significantly greater than that of the music and control groups.
Only the mindfulness group (d = 0.95) showed improved working memory scores on “Animal Parade” game (η2p=0.17).
The study shows that mindfulness training or music app use for 10 minutes daily reduces aggregate group levels of perceived stress relative to a waitlist control. The mindfulness app also improves performance scores related to sustained attention and working memory better than an active music-listening control.
The study demonstrates the potential of using smartphones to deliver interventions as well as to assess outcomes, allowing researchers to obtain adequate sample sizes with less inconvenience to participants and researchers.
Axelsen, J. L., Meline, J. S. J., Staiano, W., & Kirk, U. (2022). Mindfulness and music interventions in the workplace: Assessment of sustained attention and working memory using a crowdsourcing approach. BMC Psychology, 10(1), 108.
We often comfort those who are distraught by offering them the same advice we would offer ourselves were we in the same situation. Helping others to emotionally self-regulate can sometimes be stressful, however, especially when one’s efforts fail. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can help people regulate their own stress but little is known about whether it can also reduce the stress of trying to help others.
Guendelman et al. [Neuroimgage] used a randomized controlled trial to test the effect of MBSR on participants’ use of acceptance, permission, and cognitive reappraisal strategies to regulate their own stress as well as the stress of another person and examined the brain regions associated with self- and other-regulation.
The researchers randomly assigned 68 German adults (average age = 38 years; 83% female) to either MBSR or a control condition. The MBSR program met in 8 standard weekly 2.5-hour group sessions with an all-day retreat and homework.
The control group met with the same frequency and read, listened to, shared, and discussed works of fiction, myth, and poetry in group and listened to audiobooks at home.
Participants were assessed at baseline and after intervention on a self-other emotional regulation task while undergoing brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The task required participants to alternately try to regulate their own emotions and the emotions of a confederate as they both viewed aversive and neutral photographs.
The photographs included the instructions “Gently accept!”, “Permit the reaction!”, or “This is just a photo!” which the participants alternately voiced to either themselves or the confederate. Participants were instructed as to what these acceptance, permission, and reappraisal strategies involved before beginning the task. These strategies were designed to reflect the strategies often presumed to underlie the effectiveness of MBSR.
Participants were also given false feedback on some trials that they had failed to successfully regulate their own or the confederate’s stress. Participants rated their stress after each photograph.
Study results showed the MBSR group showed significantly lower stress over time during self-regulation reappraisal trials while controls did not (η2p= .11). During self-regulation acceptance trials, the control group experienced increasing levels of stress, while the MBSR group did not (η2p= .09). No significant group x time interactions were found during the other-regulation trials or during any of the “permission” trials.
A complex pattern of significant brain region activation differences were found between the MBSR and control group during self-regulation acceptance, other-regulation reappraisal, and other-regulation acceptance trials.
The group of MBSR participants displayed greater brain activation in the parietal and insular cortices when regulating self-stress and in the precuneus and temporo-parietal junction when regulating other’s stress, especially while using the acceptance strategy. Brain region activation levels were not correlated with changes in self-reported stress.
The study shows MBSR can help participants self-regulate their own stress through both acceptance and cognitive reappraisal strategies but has no effect on the stress of attempting to regulate another person’s emotions.
Interpretation of the study is complicated by the fact that MBSR participants reported significantly greater stress during self-regulation reappraisal trials at baseline.
Guendelman, S., Bayer, M., Prehn, K., & Dziobek, I. (2022). Towards a mechanistic understanding of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) using an RCT neuroimaging approach: Effects on regulating own stress in social and non-social situations. NeuroImage, 119059.
Infants whose mothers were highly stressed during pregnancy often show altered autonomic nervous system responsiveness to stress after birth. This is important because autonomic responsiveness is associated with childhood behavioral problems. For example, dysregulated sympathetic reactivity is associated with antisocial behavior, substance use, and anxiety. Mindfulness-based interventions that reduce maternal stress may potentially exert influence on fetal development.
Noroña-Zhou et al. [Psychosomatic Medicine] compared autonomic and behavioral reactivity and regulation in infants whose mothers with elevated stress had previously participated in either a mindfulness-based program or a control group during pregnancy.
The researchers identified 135 6-month-old infants (46% Mixed Race, 36% Black, 17% White) whose mothers had previously completed an 8-week Mindful Moms Training intervention during pregnancy or had served as controls for that study. The mothers were primarily low-income (median income = $18,000) who reported high levels of stress.
The Mindful Moms program was delivered in eight 2-hour weekly group sessions that combined Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, mindful-eating, and support for nutrition and exercise. The control condition was maternity care provided as usual. Previously published results from this trial showed Mindful Moms improved mothers’ levels of stress, depression, activity level, and glucose tolerance relative to controls.
Sixty-five of the infant-mother pairs were assessed at 6 months of age using a five phase “still face” paradigm to induce infant stress. In this, mothers played normally with their infants for 30 seconds, then stopped interacting with or responding to them and maintained a neutral facial expression for another 30 seconds. The parents then resumed normal responsiveness followed by another “still face” episode and a final resumption of normal responsiveness.
Infant electrocardiograms (EKGs) were monitored throughout the task. EKG respiratory sinus arrythmias served as a measure of parasympathetic reactivity and the length of EKG pre-ejection periods served as a measure of sympathetic reactivity. Infant behaviors were videotaped and rated by study blinded observers for fussing, withdrawal, and protest as well as visual engagement with objects in the environment.
Results showed infants in the Mindful Moms group increased their sympathetic activity earlier on in the first still face episode than controls, but that controls showed persistent elevated sympathetic activity throughout the remainder of the task whereas mindful infants returned towards baseline.
While all infants showed some decline in positive visual engagement with objects after the first still face episode, mindful infants declined less and showed greater positive visual engagement than controls during the remainder of the task.
There were no group differences in parasympathetic activity or negative behaviors like fussing or withdrawal.
The findings of the study reveal that infants of stressed mothers who participated in a mindfulness intervention show increased sympathetic responsiveness, better sympathetic recovery, and more persistent visual engagement with the environment in response to stress than controls.
The study is limited by its lack of baseline equivalence for gestational age yet this variable was not influential on the treatment effect when covaried statistically.
Noroña-Zhou, A. N., Coccia, M., Epel, E., Vieten, C., Adler, N. E., Laraia, B., Jones-Mason, K., Alkon, A., & Bush, N. R. (2022). The Effects of a Prenatal Mindfulness Intervention on Infant Autonomic and Behavioral Reactivity and Regulation. Psychosomatic Medicine.
Elevations and large fluctuations in eye fluid pressure are risk factors for glaucoma, a disease that results in optic nerve damage and blindness. Experts disagree on when it is best to monitor eye fluid pressure and when it is best to initiate medical treatment.
While pharmacological treatments reduce glaucoma risk, they can be expensive and cause unwanted side effects. In addition, knowing one is at risk for glaucoma can increase stress which can further elevate eye fluid pressure and decrease quality of life.
Dada et al. [American Journal of Ophthalmology] investigated whether mindfulness meditation could reduce eye fluid pressure and fluid pressure fluctuations, thus delaying or reducing the need for pharmaceutical treatment. Normal eye fluid pressure is ≤ 20 mm Hg, and every 1 mm Hg decrease in pressure results in a 10% decrease in glaucoma risk.
The researchers randomly assigned 60 patients attending a New Delhi glaucoma clinic with eye fluid pressure elevations of 21-30 mm Hg (average age = 52 years) to mindfulness meditation or a wait-list control group. The mindfulness group included two one-hour trainings in breath-focused mindfulness meditation and 60-minutes of daily practice at home for 6 weeks.
Study personnel called participants on a weekly basis to encourage continued practice and insure correct technique. Participants completed assessments at baseline and six weeks after baseline (or after intervention) on measures of eye fluid pressure (taken every 3 hours across a 15-hour interval), optic disc blood vessel density and perfusion, a single 8:00 AM blood serum cortisol, and self-reported quality-of-life.
The results showed the mindfulness group had a significantly greater reduction in eye fluid pressure (-3.9 mm Hg) than controls (-0.18 mm Hg). The mindfulness group also showed significant reductions in diurnal pressure fluctuation (-2.14 mm Hg) while controls did not (-0.20 mm Hg).
Average optic disc blood vessel density and perfusion improved more for mindfulness than control participants. The mindfulness group also reported a significantly greater improvement in quality of life than controls.
Lastly, mindfulness practitioners saw a significantly greater decrease in morning serum cortisol (-2.54 μg/dl) than controls (+0.38 μg/dl). Serum cortisol reductions were correlated with decreased eye fluid pressure (r=-.73), reduced diurnal fluctuation in pressure (r=-.56), and improved quality of life (r=.62).
The study shows mindfulness mediation training can reduce clinically-evaluated risk factors for developing glaucoma. The reported average drop in eye fluid pressure for mindfulness participants reflects a 39% decrease in risk for glaucoma progression.
It is unclear how long this improvement persists, and how much daily meditation practice is needed to maintain it. The study is limited by its lack of published information on the extent of home practice compliance and the absence of an active control.
Dada, T., Mondal, S., Midha, N., Mahalingam, K., Sihota, R., Gupta, S., Angmo, D., & Yadav, R. K. (2022). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction on IOP in patients with ocular hypertension: A randomized control trial. American Journal of Ophthalmology.
Mindfulness-based trainings typically combine focused-attention meditation with open-monitoring meditation that involves attending to the entire field of awareness. Little is known about how these different types of meditation uniquely contribute to emotional well-being.
Brown at al. [Psychophysiology] investigated the effects of these meditations, separately and combined, on measures of emotional reactivity and regulation.
The researchers randomly assigned 104 meditation-naïve predominantly female, Caucasian adults (average age = 40 years) with persistent mild-to-severe depression, anxiety, and/or stress to a focused-attention meditation training program, an open-monitoring meditation program, or a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program that includes both types of meditation training.
All three programs were offered in formats that included 8 three-hour weekly groups and a full-day retreat. Participants were encouraged to engage in 45 minutes of daily home meditation practice. The focused-attention group used sensations such as the breath to anchor their meditations, while the open-monitoring group used mental noting to attend to the full range of sensory, cognitive, and emotional experiences.
Participants completed baseline and post-training electroencephalographic (EEG) measures of emotional reactivity and regulation. They were presented with a series of computerized positive, negative, and neutral images.
For the first 4 seconds of each image presentation, participants simply looked at the image allowing emotional reactions to arise. During the following 10 seconds they employed the meditative strategy they had been taught to regulate their emotional reactions to the picture—either breathing or mental noting. Participants also rated their mood after each viewing.
An EEG recorded any frontal lobe alpha wave asymmetry in response to the images. Greater left > right frontal alpha wave activity is associated with an approach response to stimuli, while greater right > left frontal alpha wave activity is associated with an avoidance response. Increased left > right activity reflects a decrease in negative emotional responsiveness to a stimulus.
Over the course of training, the MBCT and focused-attention groups showed significantly greater increased leftward shifts in alpha wave asymmetry compared to the open-monitoring group. This was true for both the emotional reactivity and the emotional regulation phases of EEG recording.
All three groups reported improved self-reported mood while viewing negative images from baseline to post-training with open-monitoring (d=0.63) and focused-attention groups (d=0.54) showing larger mood improvements than the MBCT group (d=0.21).
The study shows greater shifts in frontal lobe alpha wave asymmetry for focused-attention and MBCT training, but greater improvement in self-reported mood for open-monitoring training. It is not clear why these EEG and self-report results diverge. The study is limited by the lack of a non-meditation control group.
Brown, K. W., Berry, D., Eichel, K., Beloborodova, P., Rahrig, H., Britton, W. B. (2022). Comparing impacts of meditation training in focused attention, open monitoring, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on emotion reactivity and regulation: Neural and subjective evidence from a dismantling study. Psychophysiology.
Trainees in pediatric medical residencies face a high level of occupational demand. Between 39-75% of residents report occupational burnout. This is experienced as emotional exhaustion, impaired work performance, and decreased empathy for patients. Mindfulness training might prevent burnout through its focus on stress management and empathy; however, it requires extra time which overburdened residents lack.
Fraiman et al. [JAMA Pediatrics] developed a mindfulness-based training that could be practically integrated into pediatric residencies and tested whether it could help prevent emotional exhaustion and burnout.
The researchers recruited 15 pediatric medical residency programs that included a total of 365 eligible pediatric residents to participate in the study. Programs were randomly assigned to the mindfulness training or control arm after pairing them on location and size. Six residents declined participation, leading to an initial sample of 359 participants (75% female).
The mindfulness program included 1-hour monthly meetings for the first 7 months of the program. Residents were encouraged but not required to attend, and attendance was not taken. Each monthly meeting began with a social lunch followed by a minute of silence, introductory remarks, a mindfulness exercise, and a subsequent debriefing.
Mindfulness exercises were designed to be ones residents could integrate into their busy days and be relevant to their work. Two weeks after each meeting, residents were invited to utilize a 10-minute pre-recorded guided body scan.
The control arm of the study involved 7 one-hour social lunches without instruction. Residents in both arms were assessed at baseline, 6 months, and 15 months on self-report measures of emotional exhaustion (study primary outcome), depersonalization, empathy, personal accomplishment, burnout, perspective taking, and mindfulness (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire).
Participant dropout rates from the study follow up were 20% at 6 months and 43% at 15 months, and were roughly equal across groups
The results showed no difference between the mindfulness and socializing groups over time on emotional exhaustion, burnout, empathy, perspective taking, or mindfulness. Most residents reported burnout at baseline (75% in the mindfulness group and 60% in the control arm) and burnout increased over time in each group.
By month 15, 84% of the mindfulness group and 88% of the control group reported burnout. Self-reported frequency in use of mindfulness practices did not differ by group, indicating both groups used mindfulness to a similar degree.
The study showed a low-dose, once per monthly mindfulness intervention adapted to the occupational needs of pediatric residents did not outperform a time-matched socializing group on reducing emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Resident burnout rates at baseline were much higher than those reported in prior studies. The adapted program used in this study was much less intensive than most mindfulness programs, not taught by trained mindfulness teachers, and no records were kept of attendance or home practice.
Fraiman, Y. S., Cheston, C. C., Cabral, H. J.,... Sox, C. M. (2022). Effect of a Novel Mindfulness Curriculum on Burnout During Pediatric Internship: A Cluster Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Pediatrics.
Our ability to get along well with others depends on being able to read social cues. When a social cue such as a facial expression has an unclear meaning, people are often biased in the way they interpret it. For example, when viewing a facial expression of surprise, some people tend to interpret the expression positively (the person received a gift) while others tend to interpret it negatively (the person witnessed an accident). However, facial expressions alone do not indicate their cause, so the viewers’ assumptions are a function of their unique cognitive bias.
Biases in attributing emotion and cause are tied to brain activity. Negative attributions are associated with activity in emotional centers of the brain (the amygdala), while positive attributions are associated with problem solving regions (the frontal lobes). Negative attributions tend to be more automatic, but positive attributions require more cognitive processing and emotional regulation.
Harp et al. [Journal of Experimental Psychology: General] tested the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on negative and positive biases in response to viewing surprised faces.
The researchers relied on three samples: a cohort of 58 MBSR participants (mean age = 42 years; 90% white), and two independent comparison cohorts drawn from two separate longitudinal studies (Cohort 1: mean age = 45 years; 93% White; Cohort 2: mean age = 40 years; 93% White). MBSR was delivered using the standard 8-week group format with the 8-hour retreat.
Participants in all three cohorts were assessed on an ambiguous social cue task at five separate time points over 16 weeks. For the MBSR cohort, this occurred at baseline, after the first MBSR class, before the last MBSR class, after the last MBSR class, and 8 weeks after the last class. During these assessment sessions, participants viewed computer-presented photographs of happy, angry, and surprised faces and asked to categorize the expressions as positive or negative by clicking on the words “positive” or “negative” with a computer mouse.
The primary outcome measure was the percent of surprised faces that were judged as negative. Participants also completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) at baseline, 8 weeks, and 16 weeks.
The results showed the MBSR group’s judgments of surprised faces became significantly more positive over the course of training and that this shift towards positivity continued to grow though during the two months post-training. This shift to increased positivity was significantly correlated with increased non-reactivity on the FFMQ (r =-.38). This kind of shift towards positivity did not occur in the two untreated comparison groups.
An analysis of computer mouse movements found that the MBSR group’s computer mouse trajectories for surprised faces became significantly more direct over the course of training suggesting the training was helping participants to override their initial negativity bias.
The study shows MBSR decreases participants’ bias to view ambiguous social cues in a negative way, and that this decreased response bias is associated with increased mindful non-reactivity. The study is limited by the absence of a randomized control group.
Harp, N. R., Freeman, J. B., & Neta, M. (2022). Mindfulness-based stress reduction triggers a long-term shift toward more positive appraisals of emotional ambiguity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
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