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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.
Link to study
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.
Sarcoidosis is a relatively rare multisystem immune disorder that causes inflamed lumps of tissue (called granulomas) to form and adhere to various body organs. Common symptoms include fatigue, lack of energy, shortness of breath, cough, and skin rashes/nodules. Treatment may involve the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, pulmonary rehabilitation, and/or physical training.
Kahlmann at al. [Lancet Respiratory Medicine] tested whether an on-line version of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (eMBCT) reduces stress and fatigue in patients with sarcoidosis.
The study randomly assigned 99 Dutch adults with sarcoidosis (average age = 50 years; 59% female) who scored >21 points on a fatigue scale to receive standard care plus eMBCT or standard care alone. eMBCT is an 8-session online mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program initially designed to treat fatigue in cancer patients.
Participants were deemed to have completed the program if they completed 6 of the 8 sessions within a six-month window. They were also encouraged to engage in additional audio-guided home practice 30-minutes a day, 6 days a week.
Seventy-eight percent of the participants who began eMBCT completed at least 6 sessions in six months. It should be also noted, however, that a third of the potential participants assigned to eMBCT declined participation following an initial explanation of what the program entailed. Many thought it too time-consuming or had negative associations with mindfulness. This high decline rate (and the COVID pandemic) caused researchers to change their assignment protocol midway through, assigning a higher proportion of participants to the eMBCT than initially planned.
Participants were assessed at baseline, after program completion (or for controls at 3 months) and at three months after completion (or for controls at six-month follow-up). The study primary outcome was a change in fatigue ratings. Secondary outcomes were changes in sarcoidosis health status, anxiety, depression, and mindfulness (Frieburg Mindfulness Inventory).
Results showed that by post-intervention, the fatigue levels in the eMBCT group decreased significantly from baseline (-4.5 points) while controls showed no such significant decline (-0.9 points).
At six-month follow-up, eMBCT participants largely maintained their improvement (-4.0 from baseline), while controls slightly improved (-1.9 from baseline).
At post-intervention, 60% of the eMBCT group had a clinically meaningful improvement in fatigue level (defined by either a ≥ 4 point or 10% change) while only 26% of the controls had a clinically meaningful improvement.
Patients in the eMBCT group also showed significantly larger decreases in anxiety and depression and improvements in mindfulness and overall health status than controls at post-intervention and follow-up.
The study supports eMBCT as an effective treatment for reducing sarcoidosis-related fatigue. The study is limited by its reliance on a treatment-as-usual control instead of an active comparator. The fact that many mindfulness and control patients were assessed at different time intervals relative to the completion of the intervention also complicates study interpretation.
Kahlmann, V., Moor, C. C., van Helmondt, S. J., et al. (2022). Online mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for fatigue in patients with sarcoidosis (TIRED): A randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.
Many older adults suffer from chronic arthritic knee pain. Over 700,000 Americans undergo total knee replacement surgery every year. While most patients benefit from knee replacement, up to a third of patients report persistent post-operative pain.
Pester et al. [Pain Medicine] conducted a pilot trial to test whether a brief mindfulness-based program reduces postoperative pain levels in a sample of patients undergoing total knee replacement.
The study recruited a sample of 22 Boston-area patients (age = 68 years; 55% female; 82% Caucasian) planning to undergo knee replacement and willing to participate in a mindfulness training intervention with a matched control sample of 22 Boston-area patients (age = 66 years; 55 % female; 91% Caucasian) participating in a larger knee replacement study not involving mindfulness training.
The samples were matched on age, arthritis diagnosis, stable medication dosage, and English language proficiency as well as the absence a variety of comorbid conditions (substance abuse, sleep disorder, autoimmune disease, neuropathy, dementia, and psychosis).
The mindfulness program was called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and was delivered in four single-hour sessions. The first and last sessions were delivered in person, and the second and third sessions were delivered via telephone. The first two sessions were delivered pre-surgically and the last two sessions post-surgically.
All sessions were taught by a clinical pain psychologist. The program included in-session practice and homework involving the body scan, sitting meditation, and lovingkindness meditation as well as cognitive-behavioral psychoeducation focusing on pacing physical activity, coping strategies, and avoiding catastrophizing about pain. The control group received knee surgery care treatment as usual.
Participants were assessed at baseline, six-weeks, and 3-and-6 months post-surgically on self-report measures of pain severity, catastrophizing, and interference with activities of daily living as well as measures of depression, and anxiety.
The results indicated that the mindfulness group showed a significantly lower pain score than controls at six weeks (partial η2=.12) with a non-significant trend towards reduced pain interference in their daily activities compared to controls (partial η2=.08).
An analysis of within-group effects at six weeks showed the mindfulness group experienced significantly reduced pain levels compared to their own baseline (partial η2=.33) but controls did not (partial η2=.00).
The groups did not differ at 3- and 6-month follow-up when both groups showed significant large reductions in pain over baseline. This was to be expected given most post-surgical pain resolves on its own over time.
The mindfulness group showed a significant reduction in pain catastrophizing scores at six weeks compared to their own baseline, but the control group did not. There were no between group or within group changes in depression and anxiety.
Reductions in pain catastrophizing scores were significantly associated with reductions in pain severity scores (r=.51).
The study shows that brief mindfulness training that includes elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy can reduce post-operative pain and speed recovery immediately after total knee replacement surgery. It appears this effect is due, at least in part, to a reduction in pain catastrophizing.
The study is limited by its lack of randomization, small sample size, and reliance on a standard care control.
Pester, B. D., Wilson, J. M., Yoon, J., Lazaridou, A., et al. (2022). Brief Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is Associated with Faster Recovery in Patients Undergoing Total Knee Arthroplasty: A Pilot Clinical Trial. Pain Medicine.
Arthroscopic surgery of the knee and shoulder involves inserting a pencil-thin lens and lighting system though a small incision in the human body to view injured connective tissue. Joint repair is then performed with specialized instruments inserted through separate small incisions.
Although orthopedic residents learn to perform this precise surgery on arthroscopy simulators, it is often hard for trainees to retain a high level of proficiency. In part, this is because surgical performance is negatively impacted by factors such as operating room distractions and the surgeon’s mental state.
Li et al. [Arthroscopy] tested whether a mindfulness meditation app could improve orthopedic residents’ performance during arthroscopic surgical simulation as well as reduce stress and distraction.
The researchers randomly assigned 43 male meditation-naïve and arthroscopically-naive orthopedic residents in Guangzhou, China (average age = 26 years) to one of three training conditions. On the first day of the study, all residents attended a didactic lecture on knee arthroscopic surgery and performed practice surgery using an arthroscopic simulator. Residents continued simulator practice until they attained two consecutive perfect scores on a set of surgical tasks.
Performance scoring was calculated by a pre-programmed simulator algorithm using a scoring system developed by the Arthoscopy Association of North America. It included measures like procedure time, camera path length, and degree of simulated cartilage injury.
After that initial arthroscopic training, two of the groups meditated 10-minutes a day for a total of 10 days using the Tide smartphone app. The app included guided audio meditations focusing on topics such as acceptance, calmness, and bodily and emotional awareness.
On day 11, residents were re-evaluated on the arthroscopic simulator performance. One-half of the meditation-trained residents meditated for 10 minutes immediately prior to the evaluation, and the other half did not. Residents reported their stress and mindfulness (Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised) on day 1 and day 11 of the study.
The results showed that meditation-trained residents who meditated immediately before the simulator evaluation performed significantly better than meditation-trained residents who did not meditate immediately before the evaluation. This improvement was noted on several measures including total simulator score, surgery completion time, and injury to cartilage.
In addition, meditation-trained residents who did not meditate immediately prior to the evaluation showed significantly less skill deterioration over the course of the eleven days than residents in the non-meditation control.
Both groups of meditators showed significantly reduced stress over time compared to the non-meditators who reported increased stress levels (partial η2=0.67). Mindfulness scores improved for both mindfulness groups and declined for non-meditating controls (partial η2=0.50).
The study shows meditation app use can reduce the normal deterioration in arthroscopic surgical skills over time, and that meditating immediately before a surgical evaluation can improve surgical performance by orthopedic residents. Meditation may accomplish this by reducing stress and improving attentional skills during a surgical task.
The study’s generalizability is limited by its reliance on a male-only sample and a simulated rather than real-life surgical outcome, and by the absence of an active control group.
Li, W., Meng, X., Zhang, K.-J., Yang, Z., Feng, Z., Tong, K., & Tian, J. (2022). Meditation Using a Mobile App Improves Surgery Trainee Performance: A Simulation-Based Randomized Controlled Trial. Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery.
There is some evidence that mindfulness training improves cognitive function and emotion regulation in adult samples. Less is known whether a similar effect generalizes to adolescents, given that adolescence is a developmental period in which cognitive and self-regulation functions are in the process of maturing.
Dumontheil et al. [Journal of Adolescence] tested the effect of mindfulness versus relaxation training on task-based cognitive performance and brain responsiveness to emotional stimuli in adolescents and adults. Their intent was to discern whether adults and adolescents responded to mindfulness training in the same way.
The researchers randomly assigned healthy, meditation-naïve British adolescent (N=28; average age = 14 years) and adult females (N= 23; average age = 28 years) to mindfulness or relaxation training. Trainings were offered in 8 weekly 90-minute group-based sessions with daily homework practice assigned.
Mindfulness training was based on “Learning to BREATHE,” a public school-based program founded on the principles of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Relaxation training taught a variety of unspecified relaxation techniques and skills.
Participants were assessed before and immediately after the training conditions on two computerized tasks. One task was used to assess attention control and a second emotional “N-back” task was used to assess emotion regulation. Participants completed these tasks while undergoing functional brain scans (fMRI).
The attention control task had participants view computer presented slides with a fixation cross with asterisks above or below the cross. The asterisks cued participants to look where a stimulus would most likely subsequently appear. The stimulus consisted of a set of arrows either all aligned in the same direction or with one misaligned arrow.
The attention control task required participants had to judge whether the stimulus arrows were all in alignment. The asterisk cueing where the stimulus was likely to appear was misleading 20% of the time. This required participants to reorient their attention when the stimulus finally appeared.
The emotional “N-back” task had participants view a series of computer-presented slides with a numeral appearing on each slide. Participants had to respond whenever a numeral was identical to one presented two slides earlier. Some numerals were presented alone, but others were flanked by pictures of happy, sad, or fearful faces that served as emotional distractors.
The results showed the misleading asterisks slowed attention task reaction time for the entire sample. Over the course of multiple trials, this slowing in reaction time significantly decreased in the mindfulness group but not in the relaxation control (d = -0.57). This effect was similar for adults and adolescents.
The study groups were similar on emotional “N-back task” accuracy and reaction time. However, adolescents in the mindfulness group showed a significant decrease in left amygdala activation in response to the emotional faces, whereas adolescents in the relaxation group and adults in either training group did not.
The amygdala is a part of the brain’s limbic system that is implicated in emotional responding. Decreased amygdala activation may indicate that the adolescent mindfulness group was better able to focus on the stimulus and ignore the task-irrelevant distracting emotional faces.
This study shows that mindfulness as compared to relaxation training results in improved reorientation of attention for adults and adolescents and improved emotional regulation in adolescents but not adults. This suggests that mindfulness training might offer a unique benefit for adolescents in terms of emotion regulation.
The study is limited by its small sample size, lack of predefined fMRI regions of interest, and by the use of a single teacher facilitating both groups.
Dumontheil, I., Lyons, K. E., Russell, T. A., & Zelazo, P. D. (2022). A preliminary neuroimaging investigation of the effects of mindfulness training on attention reorienting and amygdala reactivity to emotional faces in adolescent and adult females. Journal of Adolescence.
Asthma is a chronic disease characterized by airway inflammation, obstruction, and hyper-reactivity that affects 8% of the U.S. population. Symptom severity is often exacerbated by psychological stress, and stress-reduction techniques may have an important role in asthma control.
Higgins et al. [Brain, Behavior, & Immunity] conducted a randomized, controlled study to test whether Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) improves asthma control and reduces airway inflammation.
The researchers randomly assigned 73 adults with clinically diagnosed asthma (average age = 38 years; 59% female) to either MBSR or a wait-list control. MBSR was the standard 8-week group intervention including the intensive one-day meditation retreat.
Study assessments were conducted at baseline, the midpoint of the intervention, post-intervention, and at four monthly follow-ups. Participants were assessed on self-reported asthma severity, the amount of nitric oxide in their breath, sputum and blood eosinophil counts, and self-report measures of stress and mindfulness (the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire).
Nitric oxide is a biomarker for airway inflammation. Eosinophils are white cells in the blood that are elevated in inflammatory diseases. Nitric oxide and eosinophil levels are up-regulated by separate interleukin pathways (IL-13 and IL-5 respectively). Nitric oxide is a specific biomarker for Type 2 asthma, the most common asthma subtype.
At baseline, asthma severity was significantly associated with higher levels of stress and general psychological symptomatology. Over the course of treatment, the MBSR group showed increased levels of mindfulness and decreased levels of psychological symptomatology compared to the control group.
Self-reported asthma severity showed significantly greater improvement in the MBSR group as compared to the control group (d = 0.76), and this benefit was maintained throughout the 4-month follow-up period.
Thirty-two percent of participants in the MBSR group showed clinically meaningful asthma improvement compared to only 13% of the control group. There was a modest but significant decrease in nitric oxide levels for MBSR group compared to the control group. Sputum and blood eosinophils showed no significant differences by study group.
The study shows MBSR improves self-reported asthma control and decreases nitric oxide levels in people with asthma. The study was limited by its use of a waiting list control and by measuring only two inflammatory biomarkers.
Higgins, E. T., Davidson, R. J., Busse, W. W., Klaus, D. R., Bednarek, G. T., Goldman, R. I., Sachs, J., & Rosenkranz, M. A. (2022). Clinically relevant effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in individuals with asthma. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity - Health.
The meconium, a newborn infant’s first stool, contains a rich diversity of bacterial species. Observational studies show that newborns from distressed mothers differ in terms of the frequency of bacterial species in their meconium. Differences in gut bacteria are associated with health in adults, and these differences could also play a role in newborn development.
Zhang et al. [Psychoneuroendocrinology] tested the effect of a mindfulness-based intervention on distress among pregnant mothers reporting elevated distress and examined their newborn infants’ meconium bacteria.
The researchers randomly assigned 160 distressed pregnant women in Shandong Province, China (mean age = 30 years) to either prenatal care as usual or prenatal care plus a 6-week mindfulness-based intervention. The women were classified as distressed based on baseline cut-off scores on self-report measures of anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness training was delivered individually over six weeks via a WeChat cellphone app. On the first day of each of the six weeks, the women viewed a 10 to 20-minute pre-recorded introduction to the topic of the week. On the following six days of each week, they engaged in 10-30 minutes of formal and informal theme-related mindfulness practices.
Themes included an introduction to mindfulness, awareness of present-moment experience, identifying avoidances, automatic vs. mindful responding, and mindfulness in childbirth. Meditation exercises were like those in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Maternal anxiety and depression self-report scores were collected at post-intervention. Stool from infant bowel movements during their first 48 hours after delivery were collected by maternity ward staff and sequenced for bacterial DNA identification.
There are two types of measures of bacterial diversity in stool samples: alpha and beta diversity. Alpha diversity is a measure of biodiversity within a single sample, whereas beta diversity is a measure of the similarity or dissimilarity of two samples.
Post-intervention results showed significantly lower average anxiety and depression self-report scores among women in the mindfulness compared to the control group. The study groups did not differ in stool alpha diversity.
Significant differences emerged by group, however, in stool beta diversity. Specifically, infant stools in the mindfulness group had higher levels of Bifidobacterium and Blautia, while infant stools from control mothers had higher levels of Staphylococcus.
The study shows that a mindfulness intervention for psychologically distressed pregnant women raises the level of “healthy” bacteria in their newborn infants’ gut systems Studies show Bifidobacterium levels are associated with neuropsychological development in children, and Blautia levels are shown to be lower in depressed adults.
The study is limited by its measuring stool meconium bacteria at only one time point, and the DNA sequencing method used could not correlate specific bacterial strains with maternal psychological variables.
Zhang, X., Mao, F., Li, Y., Wang, J., Wu, L., Sun, J., & Cao, F. (2022). Effects of a maternal mindfulness intervention targeting prenatal psychological distress on infants’ meconium microbiota: A randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 145, 105913.
Differing regions of the human brain work in tandem to form large-scale integrated brain networks. Three large-scale brain region networks organize much of human brain activity: the Central Executive Network (CEN), the Salience Network (SN), and the Default Mode Network (DMN).
The CEN is dominant when we are deliberately focusing on a task, the SN is dominant when we are evaluating sensory input in preparing to respond, and the DMN is dominant when we are off-task and mind-wandering.
These networks are relevant to mindfulness meditation which involves deliberate attentional focus (CEN) on bodily sensations (SN) that minimizes mind-wandering (DMN). Much of the research on the effect of mindfulness meditation training on these brain networks is limited by small sample sizes, correlational findings, and the lack of control groups.
Bremer et al. [Scientific Reports] tested the longitudinal effect of mindfulness training on the functional connectivity between these brain networks using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with adult participants.
The researchers assigned 46 German meditation-naïve adults (50% male; average age = 35) to 31 days of either web-based mindfulness or health education training. Initial assignment was random, but researchers slightly adjusted the assignments to equalize the sex and age of the groups.
Participants underwent resting-state fMRI brain scans before and after intervention. Trainings involved daily 10-15-minute audio and video content. Mindfulness training was developed by a MBSR instructor. Health training involved excerpts from popular science broadcasts on a broad array of health topics. Participants needed to complete at least 23 sessions to be included in the data analysis.
fMRI data were analyzed for functional connectivity, dynamic functional connectivity, and seed-based connectivity. Functional connectivity measures how much two brain networks are interconnected at a given time. Dynamic functional connectivity measures how much connectivity between networks fluctuates in tandem over time. Seed-based connectivity measures how regions of interest interact with the whole brain.
While the functional connectivity analysis showed no significant effects, the dynamic functional connectivity analysis showed the mindfulness training group had increased dynamic functional connectivity between regions of the DMN and regions of the SN while controls did not.
Seed-based connectivity analysis (using the DMN and SN regions identified in the prior analysis as seeds) found similar increases in connectivity between regions of the DMN and SN in the mindfulness group but not controls.
The researchers interpret this greater functional connectivity as reflecting an individual’s growing awareness of when they are mind-wandering during mindfulness practice and using that awareness as a signal to return to focusing.
This study shows an increased DMN-SN dynamic functional connectivity after mindfulness training in naïve meditators. These brain findings offer some neural function correlates of how meditators track mind-wandering and re-focus attention.
The researchers caution that focused-attention and open-monitoring meditations would probably result in different patterns of connectivity.
Bremer, B., Wu, Q., Mora Álvarez, M. G., Hölzel, B. K., Wilhelm, M., Hell, E., Tavacioglu, E. E., Torske, A., & Koch, K. (2022). Mindfulness meditation increases default mode, salience, and central executive network connectivity. Scientific Reports.
Does mindfulness practice increase altruism? Research suggests the answer is mixed. For example, mindfulness practice is shown to increase altruistic behavior among people who have a strong predisposition to altruism but decrease it when they are self-centered.
Interpreting the data from existing studies can be difficult because studies vary as to whether they teach mindfulness in conjunction with lovingkindness and compassion or as a stand-alone attentional practice.
Malin & Gumpel [Mindfulness] conducted an experiment to test whether a brief mindfulness practice affected people’s willingness to help someone in distress. They also examined whether mindfulness practice had a larger effect on helping behavior in people with higher initial levels of empathy.
The researchers randomly assigned 189 Israeli undergraduates (85% female; mean age = 21 years) to either mindfulness practice, listening to music, or listening to a lecture. Interventions and data collection were administered by Zoom.
The mindfulness group involved two 30-minute guided meditations offered one week apart. Meditation focused on non-judgmental observation of sensations, thoughts, and feelings during a body scan. Meditation training did not include training in loving-kindness or compassion.
Music and lecture control conditions were also offered in two 30-minute Zoom sessions one week apart. The music intervention consisted of relaxing classical music, and the lecture topics focused on empathy and help-giving. Participants were assessed prior to the intervention on a self-report measure of capacity for empathy.
At the end of the second intervention session, participants listened to a pre-recorded sham interview with a college student named “Anna.” Anna was alleged to be part of the college radio station’s effort to determine what content interested students. In the interview, Anna described her difficulties struggling with a chronic illness.
Study participants then completed questionnaires measuring state mindfulness and their empathic response to Anna. They were also provided an opportunity to register to volunteer for an organization that helped people like Anna. Participants intending to volunteer could also submit their personal information so that the volunteer organization could contact them.
Study results showed the mindfulness group had a significantly greater proportion of participants willing to volunteer to help people like Anna than the control groups. Thirty-six percent of the mindfulness group left contact information so that they could volunteer, while 14% of the music and 16% of the lecture group did.
Baseline empathy levels significantly predicted self-reported empathy for “Anna” in the mindfulness group (b=1.40), but not in the music (b=0.28) or lecture (b=0.09) groups. Specifically, mindfulness practice increased empathic responding in participants with high baseline levels of empathy and decreased empathic responding in those with low baseline levels of empathy. Listening to music or a lecture on empathy did not show this effect.
Self-reported empathy for “Anna” correlated with a willingness to volunteer in the mindfulness (r=.38) and music groups (r=.30) but not in the lecture group (r=.04).
The results show that guided meditation practice can increase the intention to volunteer to help a stranger in distress (at least shortly after mindfulness practice). People with high baseline levels of empathy have higher levels of empathic response to a person in distress after mindfulness practice. On the other hand, mindfulness decreases empathic responsiveness in people with low baseline levels of empathy.
The study is limited to the degree that it measures intent to volunteer rather than actual volunteering.
Malin, Y., & Gumpel, T. P. (2022). Short Mindfulness Meditation Increases Help-Giving Intention Towards a Stranger in Distress. Mindfulness.
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