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Although behavior therapies are increasingly integrating mindfulness meditation, little is known about how this practice affects reward-based conditioning. Some research suggests that mindfulness can assist individuals in responding more rapidly to changes in reward contingencies, but it is not clear why.
One possibility is that people learn verbal rules that help them respond to specific reward schedules, and mindfulness enables people to let go of previously learned verbal rules that no longer apply when reward schedules change. Another possibility is that mindfulness helps people pay closer attention to the reward schedule that is currently in effect.
Reed [Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition] conducted four experiments to investigate how mindfulness affects responses to changes in reward schedule. Two different reward schedules were used in the experiments: 1) a random ratio (RR) schedule, which rewarded participants only after a certain number of responses, and 2) a random interval (RI) schedule, which rewarded participants only after a certain amount of time had elapsed. The RR schedule encouraged rapid bursts of responses, whereas the RI schedule encouraged participants to pause for a while after receiving a reward. All four studies used healthy, meditation-naïve participants drawn from a university psychology department.
The first study explored whether mindfulness could help people better differentiate between schedules—that is, to respond at higher rates during an RR schedule and lower rates during an RI schedule. Forty participants (58% male; average age = 21 years) sat at a computer and pressed a space bar with the goal of maximizing game points. Every participant completed 8 alternating RR and RI schedule trials. A yellow or brown screen icon appeared that indicated the trial was an RR or RI trial, but participants were not informed of what the color signified.
A rewarded trial earned participants 60 points, but each space bar press cost them one point. The RR schedule offered a reward after 20 space bar presses, whereas the RI schedule offered a reward for the first space bar press after a certain period of time had elapsed.
Prior to playing the game, participants were randomly assigned to a 10-minute mindfulness or relaxation intervention, delivered via audio recording. The mindfulness intervention asked participants to focus on their breath and return to it whenever their minds wandered. The relaxation intervention asked participants to relax and let their minds wander.
Both groups gradually increased their response rates during RR and decreased them during RI, but the mindfulness group showed a significantly greater differentiation between the schedules. This supports the hypothesis that mindfulness helps one pay better attention to reward schedules.
The second study investigated whether a mindfulness group would respond faster to a change in contingency schedule than a relaxation control. Thirty-two participants (75% male, average age = 21 years) were randomly assigned to a mindfulness or relaxation intervention. The experimental situation was the same as in study 1, except that the color icons associated with each schedule were switched midway through the game.
The results showed that, once again, the mindfulness group was better able to differentiate between the schedules than the control group. In addition, they responded faster to changes in reward contingency and to changes in the color signaling the contingency, compared to the controls.
The third study compared the effects of mindfulness versus a no-intervention control on the speed of contingency reversal learning using 32 participants (69% male; average age = 24 years). In this study, participants were asked to verbalize the rule they thought was in effect after each trial.
In study 3, participants first completed four trials of the game before experiencing the mindfulness or control intervention. They then played eight trials, as in study 2. The mindfulness group significantly outperformed controls in differentiating between the RR and RI schedules and accurately verbalizing the contingency in effect for each trial.
The forth study examined whether mindfulness works by promoting awareness of current contingencies or by reducing interference from previously learned contingencies using 80 participants (64% female; average age = 21 years). Participants were trained on an alternating RR/RI schedule until their response rate was higher during the RR schedule. They then randomly assigned to mindfulness or relaxation training. Half of each group play the game as noted before, while the other half played the game with the color icon signaling the reward contingency switched.
The results were consistent with the prior studies. The mindfulness group recognized changes in contingency faster and showed a more differentiated response to them than controls. Moreover, the mindfulness group responded appropriately to the changed contingencies after the icon switching faster than controls. The results support the hypothesis that mindfulness promotes situational awareness, leading to more appropriate responding to reward contingencies.
Taken together, these studies demonstrate mindfulness increases behavior differentiation between reward schedules compared to relaxation and no-treatment controls. Mindfulness also leads to faster learning of reward schedule switches. Finally, it appears to enhance performance by increasing present-moment awareness, rather than by reducing interference from previous learning. Although the study’s “relaxation” intervention conflates relaxation with mind-wandering, it does not alter the overall interpretation of the findings.
Reed, P. (2023). Focused-attention mindfulness increases sensitivity to current schedules of reinforcement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 49, 127–137.
Link to study
High-stakes exams can determine one’s future in terms of promotion, graduation, acceptance into a university, or employment. School mathematics exams are especially high-stake in East-Asian cultures where examinations have long been a prime means of advancement. Fears over how math test performance may affect one’s future, or how family and peers might react can lead to considerable test anxiety. This can create a cycle where anxiety impairs performance, and impaired performance exacerbates anxiety.
Zuo & Wang [Frontiers in Psychology] used quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate how a mindfulness-based intervention affected math test performance in Chinese middle-school students.
The researchers selected an eighth-grade class of middle school students (67% male: age range = 12-13 years) in an urban area of Jiangsu Province, China. The study lasted for one month, during which the students took four weekly geometry tests rated as equivalent in difficulty. The first and third tests were taken as usual, but for the second and fourth tests, the students listened to a 15-minute audio tape prior to the test.
The audio tape contained a breath-and-body focused meditation and included relaxation instructions. The tape also instructed students to imagine having negative thoughts and emotions during a math test, and to identify these thoughts and emotions non-judgmentally and return to present-moment awareness.
After the fourth test, students participated in group discussions about whether they found the meditations useful. Two students who benefitted from meditation and two students who did not were selected for subsequent in-depth interviews. The discussion and interviews were transcribed, coded, and thematized to offer qualitative insights into how the meditations affected student math anxiety and self-efficacy.
The results showed that students performed better on average after the meditations than without them (Cohen’s d = 0.27). All math tests were scored on a 10-point scale, with an average score of 6.73 without meditation and 7.11 with meditation.
The qualitative analysis revealed that the meditations helped students to focus more on math problems in the moment, worry less about performance outcomes, and obsess less over test time-constraints or difficult problems. The students who didn’t benefit reported finding the meditations “mysterious” or “magic” and associated them negatively with Buddhist religion.
The study shows a mindfulness meditation specifically designed to address math anxiety can objectively improve math exam performance. Qualitative interviews revealed that the students who benefited from meditation were able to focus more on solving math problems without being distracted. The study is limited by its reliance on a single classroom sample and only four measurement points.
Zuo, H., & Wang, L. (2023). The influences of mindfulness on high-stakes mathematics test achievement of middle school students. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.
Studies of the short-term effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive performance often show conflicting findings. These differences in study findings may result from heterogeneity in the populations, meditation methods, cognitive tasks, and study designs used, and the extent of participant’s prior meditation experience.
Sleimen-Malkoun, et al. [PLOS One] attempted to clarify the effects of short-term mindfulness meditation on cognitive performance by comparing it to a control intervention and studying its effect on cognitive reaction time in both experienced and novice meditators.
Forty-two healthy French adults, including 22 experienced meditators (64% female; mean age = 49 years) and 20 meditation-naïve participants (55% female; mean age = 42 years), were enrolled in the study. Experienced meditators meditated at least 3 times weekly over an average of over 5 years (range = 5-250 months), while meditation-naïve participants had no prior meditation experience.
Participants’ resting heart rates were recorded and they then performed a baseline Stroop task. Afterwards, half the participants engaged in 10 minutes of guided breath-focused mindfulness meditation while the other half actively listened to a 10 minute pre-recorded audio on the history, origins, and philosophy of mindfulness meditation without guided practice.
Participants then performed a repeat Stroop task. At this point, participants initially in the mindfulness condition were now assigned to the listening condition, and vice versa so that participants served as their own controls. Participants then completed a third Stroop task. Heart rate was monitored during both interventions.
The Stroop task was a cognitive performance task that involved showing participants computer-presented slides of colored words. Sometimes the words spelled the names of colors (e.g., “RED”), and when that happened, sometimes the text color agreed with the word name (congruent condition), and at other times text color and word name were discordant (incongruent condition). There were also times when the words named parts of the body, so that their color was irrelevant (neutral condition).
Participants were asked to identify the color the words were printed in and their reaction times were recorded. The Stroop task is a commonly used measure of participants’ attentiveness and ability to ignore distracting information.
The results showed Stroop reaction times to congruent and incongruent color word presentations were significantly faster after mindfulness meditation than after active listening. Average heart rates were significantly slower during active listening than while at rest, and significantly slower still while meditating.
The extent of participants’ prior meditation experience did not interact with experimental condition to affect Stroop reaction time or heart rate.
The study shows that a brief 10-minute mindfulness meditation is associated with slowed heart rate and improved Stroop task reaction times in both experienced and novice meditators. Acute cognitive benefit accrues after a brief meditation, even for novices.
The study is limited by its reliance on the Stroop task as the single outcome measure representing cognitive performance.
Sleimen-Malkoun, R., Devillers-Réolon, L., & Temprado, J.-J. (2023). A single session of mindfulness meditation may acutely enhance cognitive performance regardless of meditation experience. PLOS ONE, 18(3), e0282188.
Our mental health system is unable to provide care to all who need it: there are too few providers and many clients cannot afford or access it. There is a need to creatively rethink how to offer care to more in need. One way is through self-help workbooks that allow clients to work on problems at their own pace while assisted by limited paraprofessional support.
British National Health Service guidelines currently endorse practitioner-supported Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Self-Help (CBT-SH) for depression. The National Health Service currently offers CBT-SH to over 100,000 clients annually, but the intervention suffers from a high drop-out rate.
Practitioner-supported Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Self-Help (MBCT-SH) is one possible alternative to CBT-SH, but its comparative efficacy is unknown. Strauss et al. [JAMA Psychiatry] conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing CBT-SH to MBCT-SH on clinical outcomes and cost effectiveness.
The researchers randomly assigned 410 clients with mild-to-moderate depression (62% female; 86% Caucasian; median age = 32) to practitioner-supported CBT-SH or MBCT-SH. Initial diagnosis and level of depression was established by structured clinical interview and self-report.
Participants were handed CBT or MBCT self-help workbooks and provided with six structured face-to-face or telephone 30-45 minute sessions with a psychological well-being practitioner focused on workbook material. “Psychological well-being practitioner” is a paraprofessional designation created through the British National Health Service’s Improving Access to Psychological Services (IAPS) initiative.
The CBT workbook used in this study was one already in wide use in IAPS programs. The MBCT workbook was The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress written by the MBCT co-founders. Participants were given up to 16 weeks to complete the workbook curricula.
Participants were assessed on measures of depression, anxiety, quality of life and mindfulness at baseline, 16 weeks (post-intervention) and 42-week follow-up. Drop-out rates for both groups were similar (28%).
MBCT-SH participants reported greater reductions in depression at post-intervention than CBT-SH participants (d=-0.36) but the group difference was no longer significant at 42 weeks. MBCT-SH participants also reported greater improvement in anxiety than CBT-SH participants at postintervention (d=-0.23), but not at 42 weeks. The absence of significant differences at 42 weeks reflects a continued improvement in depression for both groups.
The direct costs of providing treatment were $209 for MBCT-SH and $202 for CBT-SH. Other health care and social costs were higher for the CBT-SH group ($1,684) than the MBCT-SH group ($923). The increased CBT-SH costs were due to participants receiving more individual psychotherapy outside of the program, receiving more general practitioner visits, and the higher psychotropic medication usage.
The results show MBCT-SH superior to CBT-SH as a treatment for mild-moderate depression in terms of post-intervention mental health outcome and lower health care and social costs. Findings make a case for considering MBCT-SH to be at least as effective as CBT-SH and including it within the IAPS initiative.
Strauss, C., Bibby-Jones, A.-M., Jones, F.,... Cavanagh, K. (2023). Clinical Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Supported Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Self-help Compared With Supported Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Self-help for Adults Experiencing Depression: The Low-Intensity Guided Help Through Mindfulness (LIGHTMind) Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry.
Treatments for excessive alcohol use are often only moderately successful, and clinicians are always on the lookout for more effective interventions. Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) is a promising intervention that combines standard cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention with teaching substance users to mindfully resist acting impulsively on urges.
Most existing MBRP research with persons with alcohol use disorders does not compare MBRP to other empirically validated treatments. Skrzynski et al. [Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs] tested the relative efficacy of MBRP to standard relapse prevention alone in reducing alcohol use in heavy alcohol users.
The researchers randomly assigned 182 heavy alcohol users (52% male; 92% Caucasian; average age = 44 years) who volunteered because they wished to reduce their drinking to MBRP or relapse prevention alone. At baseline, participants drank an average of 5 drinks per day, and had 12 heavy drinking days per month when they consumed more than 4 drinks per day. Forty-two percent also used cannabis at least once the past month.
Both treatments were delivered in eight weekly individual therapy sessions delivered over the course of 2 months, with follow-up appointments at weeks 20 and 32. Therapy was delivered by doctoral and post-doctoral psychology students with 3 days of specialized training in motivational interviewing, MBRP, and relapse prevention.
Assessments at baseline, 4, 8, 20, and 32 weeks included an alcohol use questionnaire and timeline follow-back measures of alcohol use based on self-report.
The results showed that both groups significantly reduced their scores on an alcohol use questionnaire, and their average number of drinks per day and total number of heavy drinking days significantly declined from baseline to posttreatment.
While reduction in heavy drinking days was equal for both groups at posttreatment, MBRP participants maintained their improvement in heavy drinking days in subsequent follow-up, whereas the relapse prevention group did not. By the end of the study, the MBRP participants had significantly fewer heavy drinking days than controls.
The efficacy of the treatment was equal for males and females. High levels of cannabis use led to continued decreases in the MBRP group in drinks per day and heavy drinking days in the follow-up period, but to increases in heavy drinking days in controls.
The study showed that MBRP and relapse prevention alone were equally effective in reducing drinks per day and heavy drinking days in alcohol users who wished to reduce their drinking, but only MBRP helped participants maintain their reduction in heavy drinking days out to 32 weeks.
The study is limited by potential participants being aware that the study treatment included mindfulness, and 18% of the sample had a history of experience with mindfulness. It is unclear whether the same results would obtain in a meditation-naïve cohort or one less favorable to the idea of mindfulness.
The study is also limited by the relative inexperience of the students conducting the MBRP and relapse prevention interventions.
Skrzynski, C. J., Karoly, H., Ellingson, J., Hangerty, S., Bryan, A. D., & Hutchison, K. E. (2023). Comparing the efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention versus relapse prevention for alcohol use disorder: A randomized control trial. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Moral decision making sometimes involves weighing trade-offs between self-serving interests and causing harm to others. Social psychology experiments reveal a moral “slippery slope.” That is, once experimental participants begin making decisions that serve their own interests but harm others, they progressively become more self-serving and less concerned about harm to others as time goes on. Moral decision-making includes decisions about what actions to take as well as judgments about how ethical those decisions are.
Mindfulness training might affect how moral decisions are made and judged by cultivating a present-moment focus that reduces goal-oriented behavior (seeking future gain) or by increasing empathy for others. Du et al. [Scientific Reports] tested the effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on moral decision-making involving tradeoffs between benefits to self and harm to self and others.
The researchers randomly assigned 68 meditation-naïve Chinese participants (75% female; Average age = 30 years) to either an 8-week MBSR course or a wait-list control. The MBSR protocol was the standard MBSR protocol delivered in a Chinese-language format. All participants engaged in moral decision making and judgment tasks and completed Chinese-language versions of mindfulness (the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire), emotional regulation, and failures in executive control (problems in planning, impulsivity, and motivation) questionnaires one week prior to and after intervention.
In the moral decision-making task, participant pain thresholds were assessed to determine the level of electric shock needed to evoke a pain of “8” on a 10-point pain scale. Participants then engaged in a series of 96 decision making trials in which they chose between receiving various amounts of money while receiving painful shocks or giving them to another “person” in the next room. There was, in fact, no other person in the next room. Participants then rated the other “person’s” choices on the same task in terms of how moral their decisions were
Results from the study showed that mindfulness and executive control scores were significantly higher in the MBSR group as compared to controls after the intervention. While the control group showed an increased willingness to inflict harm on another as compared to oneself from pre- to post-testing (the “slippery slope” effect), the MBSR group did not (partial η2= 0.08).
Using Bayesian hierarchical drift diffusion modeling, the researchers established that the amount of money participants received for each decision had less of an effect on MBSR decision-makers than controls. In other words, MBSR suppressed the influence of increases in money on moral decision-making, whereas controls were more likely to morally justify causing harm to others when the amount of monetary compensation was sufficiently high.
MBSR did not make participants more moral compared to their own baseline but reduced the magnitude of the slippery slope compared to controls.
In terms of moral judgment, participants became less judgmental of other’s choices from pretesting to post-testing. Participants weighted the importance of money more and the importance of pain less during post-testing than pretesting. There was a difference between groups in this effect, however. For controls, the same amount of money justified more harm in post-testing than pretesting, whereas the amount of money had less of an effect on the mindfulness group’s judgment.
The study shows MBSR can shift the relative value of monetary gain in moral decision making and judgment involving harm compared to a wait-list control.
The study is limited by the lack of an active control and the possibility that group differences in moral performance may owe more to the demand characteristics of having been in a mindfulness condition than to cognitive changes due to mindfulness per se.
Du, W., Yu, H., Liu, X., & Zhou, X. (2023). Mindfulness training reduces slippery slope effects in moral decision-making and moral judgment. Scientific Reports, 13(1), 2967.
Ruminative thinking involves repetitively dwelling on negative experiences. A high level of ruminative thinking is a risk factor for depressive and anxiety disorders and is also a major feature of these disorders. Mindfulness offers a way to attend to negative experience and let content of thinking arise and fall without elaboration.
Reducing ruminative thinking may be a way to reduce the risk of developing future psychological disorders. Hilt et al. [Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology] tested whether a mobile mindfulness app could reduce ruminative thinking in adolescents.
The researchers randomly assigned 152 adolescents (average age = 14; 59% female; 82% Caucasian) with high levels of rumination to a mindfulness or a mood-monitoring only group. Both groups downloaded the mobile CARE app on their smartphones. The app requested participants to rate their rumination and mood three times daily: once before and after school, and once before bedtime.
After completing ratings, mindfulness group participants engaged in mindfulness meditations of varying lengths depending on the free time they had available.
Meditations were guided by written instruction (1 minute meditations) or audio recordings (3-12 minute meditations). The meditations involved focus on the breath, body sensations, or sound. Meditation opportunities were provided 67% of the time at the end of rating sessions, and 85% of the time when participants reported sadness or anxiety. The mood-monitoring only group rated rumination and mood without the opportunities for meditation.
After three weeks, participants were no longer prompted to use the app but could continue using it if they liked. Participants were assessed at baseline, post-treatment, and 6-week, 12-week, and 6-month follow-up on self-report measures of rumination, depression, and anxiety.
The results show the mindfulness group had significantly reduced levels of rumination (d=0.43), depression (d=0.24), and anxiety (d=0.25) compared to controls at immediate post-test. The aggregate rumination scores (but not depression and anxiety scores) in the mindfulness group remained significantly lower than controls at 6-week follow-up, but not on the subsequent follow-ups.
A mediation analysis showed that post-treatment decreases in depression and anxiety were due to the decreased rumination scores predicted by the mindfulness group.
The study shows that brief app-prompted mindfulness meditations can reduce rumination, depression, and anxiety in ruminative adolescents better than mood-monitoring alone. These effects are not long-lasting and tend to fade within 6-12 weeks.
The study is important because most adolescents who ruminate do not receive any professional psychological care, and an inexpensive, easily deployable app may reduce some degree of rumination. The study is limited by the absence of a no treatment control or a meditation app without mood-monitoring.
Hilt, L. M., Swords, C. M., & Webb, C. A. (2023). Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mindfulness Mobile Application for Ruminative Adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.
Mindfulness interventions often combine teaching a skill (attentional focus) with teaching an attitude (non-judgmental compassion). When mindfulness interventions successfully affect a target behavior, it can be challenging to discern which of these two training features effectively caused the change. To disambiguate these factors, O’Hare & Gemelli [PLOS One] tested the effects of focused-attention training versus self-compassion training on college students’ well-being, academic performance, and brain activity.
The researchers assigned 37 students in one undergraduate biopsychology class to focused attention training and 35 students in a separate undergraduate biopsychology class to self-compassion training. Both classes were taught by the same instructor and all non-study intervention content was standardized. Classes were similar in student age and gender distribution (average age = 23 years; 86% female).
Students received extra credit for participating in each of three baseline assessment activities: granting permission to have their class academic test grades analyzed; completing self-report measures related to health; and having their EEGs monitored while engaging in a computer-presented attentional task.
Following baseline assessment, students participated in 10 weeks of in-class focused-attention or self-compassion training. The first five minutes of one class was devoted to focusing attention on the breath without mind-wandering, and the first five minutes of the other class was devoted to focusing on self-compassion phrases (“may I be happy,” “may I be calm,” “may I be well”). The classes met twice a week for a total of 20 possible sessions. At the end of the semester, students were reassessed on self-report measures and the computer-presented attentional task.
The attentional task involved correctly identifying the direction a computer cursor faces (either < or >) when flanked by distracting cursors facing in the same or the opposite direction. Each trial was preceded by the presentation of an emotionally negative or neutral word.
EEGs were recorded, and evoked-response potentials (ERPs) to each trial analyzed for the magnitude of N2 and P3 waveform components. N2 is a negative waveform occurring about 200 milliseconds (ms) after stimulus presentation that is associated with conflict monitoring. N2 is larger when incongruent flanking stimuli are present. P3 is a positive waveform occurring about 300 ms after stimulus presentation and associated with selective attention. P3 is smaller when people are better able to ignore irrelevant emotional stimuli.
The results showed the self-compassion group showed significantly larger improvements on measures of anxiety (d =0.70), stress (d =0.80), and depression (d=0.92) than the focused-attention group. Positive affect decreased for the focused-attention group while remaining stable for the self-compassion group (d=0.63). The self-compassion group also outperformed the focused-attention group on two of four academic exams covering the course material (d=0.56 and d=0.79).
The focused-attention group showed significantly (partial η2=.13) shorter attention task reaction times (average = 80 ms) as compared to the self-compassion group when flanking cursors were incongruent with the target cursor compared to the self-compassion group (109 ms).
Only 22 students (11 in each class) had useable EEG ERP data. The self-compassion group had significant reductions in N2 from pre- to post-testing for those trials preceded by negative emotional words, while the focused-attention group did not (partial η2=0.36). The self-compassion group also had significant pre-post reductions in P3 for those trials preceded by negative emotional words, while the focused-attention students did not (partial η2=0.40). These results suggest better emotional regulation for the self-compassion group.
The study shows that short bouts of self-compassion training delivered in class over the course of one semester improves academic test performance and self-reported well-being, as well as emotional regulation as measured by ERPs. The focused-attention group had faster reaction times on an attentional task.
The study is limited by the absence of random assignment of students to class, the lack of an inactive control, the small number of students with useable ERP data, and the brevity of its intervention.
O’Hare, A. J., & Gemelli, Z. T. (2023). The effects of short interventions of focused-attention vs. self-compassion mindfulness meditation on undergraduate students: Evidence from self-report, classroom performance, and ERPs. PLOS ONE.
Some types of human behavior are habit-like. That is, an individual will respond to a stimulus with little-to-no awareness of the reward for performing the behavior. Other responses appear to be more intentional and goal directed. That is, an individual acts with conscious awareness of the relationship between the behavior and likely rewards.
Mindfulness training may make people more sensitive to and aware of reward contingencies, thereby giving them greater control over their behavior.
Chen & Reed [Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry] performed an experiment to see whether a brief mindfulness intervention could make an operantly conditioned behavior less like habitual and more like goal-directed behavior. Goal-directed behaviors are more under conscious control, more easily guided by verbal behavior, and more easily deliberately modified.
The researchers randomly assigned 52 meditation-naïve college undergraduates (average age = 20 years; 64% female) to a mindfulness, mind-wandering, or “no treatment” condition. The mindfulness condition involved 15 minutes of breath-focused meditation after one-time brief verbal instruction. Mind-wandering participants were told to “let their mind wander” for 15 minutes. “No treatment” participants were given 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted (look at their phones, read, rest, etc.).
After the 15 minutes were up, participants engaged in a conditioning “game” on a computer. The aim of the game was to earn as many points as possible by pressing a computer space bar, but participants were not informed about how many or what frequency of space bar presses would earn points and had to learn the optimal strategy by experience.
The researchers compared rates of responding to random ratio versus random interval reward schedules following a mindfulness, mind-wandering, or control intervention. Ratio schedules provide rewards after a set number of responses, while interval schedules provide rewards for responses after a set time interval has elapsed.
Behavior typically occurs in bursts of activity called “bouts.” The initial response at the onset of a bout (“bout-initiation”) is “habit-like” in that it is relatively insensitive to reinforcement schedules.
Responses after a bout has already begun (“within-bout” behavior) are more sensitive to reinforcement schedule and more goal directed. Within-bout response rates are higher during ratio than interval reward schedules, while bout-initiation rates are the same for either schedule. The researchers sought to discover whether mindfulness training could make bout-initiation responses more sensitive to the influence of reward schedule.
Participants started off with 100 points and pressed the computer space bar to earn additional points. Each space bar press cost 1 point, but if they were on a trial for which a reward was available, the space bar press earned 40 points. There were four eight-minute periods of play with each period divided into 4 minutes on a ratio schedule followed by 4 minutes on an interval schedule.
The changeover from ratio to interval was signaled by a color change in a box on the computer screen. The number of reward points available within each 4-minute interval schedule was yoked to the number of reward points received during the prior ratio schedule.
The results showed that, as expected, overall response rates were significantly higher during the ratio than during the interval schedule (η2p = .72) for all groups. Also, as expected, within-bout response rates were higher during ratio than interval without any between experimental group differences.
Most importantly, bout-initiation rates were the same for the ratio and interval schedules for the mind-wandering and control groups but not for the mindfulness group (η2p = .12). The mindfulness group alone had a significantly higher rate of bout-initiation responses to the ratio than the interval schedule (η2p = .26).
The study shows that a brief mindfulness meditation can make habit-like behavioral responses more sensitive to reward schedules. This supports the hypothesis that mindfulness increases awareness of previously unconscious reward contingencies related to performing a behavior.
The researchers did not check to see if there was a difference to the extent in which participants in different groups could verbalize their awareness of the reward contingencies in relation to their behavior.
Chen, X., & Reed, P. (2022). The effect of brief mindfulness training on the micro-structure of human free-operant responding: Mindfulness affects stimulus-driven responding. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.
Older adults on average exhibit signs of mild cognitive impairment compared to younger adults. It is not clear how much of this normal decline in memory and cognitive functioning is inevitably due to aging, and how much might be counteracted by healthy lifestyle changes.
Lenze et al. [JAMA] conducted a large-scale, multi-site, randomized, controlled trial to test whether mindfulness meditation and/or daily exercise could reduce cognitive impairment in older adults compared to an active control group. Prior studies had shown some support for both types of intervention, and many health experts recommend exercise to counteract cognitive impairment.
The researchers randomized 585 older adults with subjective mental decline but without dementia (average age = 71 years; 72% female; 82% Caucasian) to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an exercise group, MBSR + exercise, or a health education control. MBSR was delivered in the standard 8-week plus half-day retreat format.
After the initial eight week course, participants received monthly booster classes for the remaining 16 months of the study. The program encouraged 60 minutes of daily home meditation practice throughout the length of the study.
The exercise program focused on aerobic exercise, resistance training, and functional exercises. The program met for two 1.5 hour classes weekly for the first six months, and then once weekly for the remaining 12 months of the study. A combined total of 300 minutes of exercise per week was recommended. Participants in the combined MBSR+exercise group participated in both full programs simultaneously.
The health education control met for the same session length and frequency as the MBSR group and offered a didactic curriculum focused on leading a healthy lifestyle.
Participants were assessed at baseline and 6- and 18-month follow-up on a neuropsychological battery assessing memory and cognitive functioning as well as measures of functioning in activities of daily life and quality of life. Participants had structural MRIs taken of hippocampal volume and dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex (dlPFC) surface area and cortical thickness.
Additionally, participants were assessed on measures of physical health and fitness including aerobic fitness, insulin sensitivity, body fat, plasma cortisol, sleep quality, and body strength. Retention in the trial was good, with 97% of participants completing the 6-month assessment and 81% completing the 18-month assessment.
The results showed no significant differences between study groups on memory and cognitive function at either 6- or 18-month follow-up. All groups showed a reduction in hippocampal volume and dlPFC surface area and cortical thickness at 18 months consistent with normal atrophy due to aging.
Contrary to expectation, the reduction in hippocampal volume was significantly greater in the MBSR group. Only the exercise groups showed significant improvement in aerobic fitness, physical strength, and sleep quality over time.
The study showed that, relative to a health education curriculum, neither mindfulness nor exercise improved memory or cognitive functioning or slowed brain tissue atrophy in this cohort of older adults with subjective cognitive complaints. The study participants were mostly college educated, Caucasian females with no evidence of dementia, and these findings may not generalize to clinical populations.
Lenze, E. J., Voegtle, M., Miller, J. P.,... Wetherell, J. L. (2022). Effects of Mindfulness Training and Exercise on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 328(22), 2218–2229.
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