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.
Link to study