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Mindfulness meditation - the ancient practice enters modern research labs

Finding it difficult to control your emotions, distractions or impulses? Practising mindfulness meditation could help, shows new studies

Meditation is often described as training physical and cognitive abilities by focusing awareness on different aspects of the body, thoughts and emotions, and has been practised for centuries. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the mental state of awareness and acceptance of the present moment without judgement. According to Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies the subject, mindfulness is the “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. 

Two new studies, by Ms Surabhi Lodha and Prof Rashmi Gupta from the Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory (CBN lab), Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), proposes using mindfulness meditation to develop better control of our impulsive behaviour and monitor negative emotions, like anger. 

“Mindfulness meditation refers to systematic and sustained mental training focused on developing awareness in the present moment through practices like mindful breathing, body scans, simple stretching, yoga exercises, and the application of mindfulness to daily activities”, explains Prof Rashmi Gupta. Psychiatrists have been employing mindfulness meditation to combat depression, anxiety, stress, drug addiction, obesity and other mental and physical disorders. 

The researchers aimed to study the effect of mindfulness meditation on a person’s emotional and cognitive responses and the ability of mindfulness meditation practitioners to ignore distractions from external sources while performing a task. For their first study, the researchers selected 58 participants, of which 23 were active mindfulness meditation practitioners, while the rest 35 acted as a control, with no prior meditation experience. 

All participants for the study were between the age range of 18-45, were right-handed and had normal or corrected-to-normal vision. Individuals who reported any psychiatric or neurological disorders or were undergoing psychotherapy treatment were excluded. Of those selected, those who practised mindful breathing, body scan, or both for at least one month or more were grouped to become the meditator group. 

The participants described mindful- breathing as focusing on inhalation and exhalation.A ‘body scan’ involves paying attention to each body part, from toe to head, and observing all the sensations without judgement. Individuals who practised any other technique or described it otherwise were excluded from the sample. 

For the first study, the participants were required to perform a simple task followed by filling out a survey. The task involved pressing a key or not, based on a prompt on the screen. They were expected to press the key when prompted by a ‘go’ signal on the screen and not press the key when presented with a ‘stop’ signal. Before each prompt, the participants were shown an image of a ‘happy, angry or neutral’ face, which they were asked to ignore. The image lasted for about 85 milliseconds (ms), while the prompts lasted for 250 ms. The participants were asked to respond to the prompt as quickly and accurately as possible. The survey at the end of the task recorded a participant’s attention and awareness, mood and impulsivity, self-reported by the participants on a scale of 1 to 5. 

The results of the task showed that, on average, the meditator group was better at withholding the key press when prompted with a ‘stop’ than the non-meditator group, especially when presented with an angry face before the prompts. The study results show that practising mindfulness helped the meditators process negative emotions faster without affecting the control of their impulses. According to Prof Gupta, “As per the study, the sustained mindfulness practice might help individuals acquire a strategy for monitoring the often unwanted negative emotion, more specifically, anger, and therefore, promote meaning even in the face of difficulty.” There were no significant differences in the self-report survey between the two groups. 

For their next study, 154 participants were selected in the same way as in the previous study and divided again into meditator and non-meditator groups. The two groups were again given a simple visual search task, wherein the participants were presented with six alphabets uniformly positioned around a circle. They had to select a target alphabet (X or N) using a key press. The non-target letters were either five O’s, which represented a low-load condition or five other angular letters (H, K, W, M, Z), which characterised a high-load condition. “The low-load and high-load conditions required different amounts of attentional resources for successful performance on the primary task”, explains Prof Gupta. 

In 25% of the trials, the participants were also presented with a ‘distractor’ image at the centre, which they were asked to ignore. The researchers conducted two experiments, the first one, where the distractor images were of happy or angry faces, while the second experiment had pleasurable (erotic images) or unpleasurable (images of mutilated bodies) distractor images. In both experiments, the participants were given 1900 milliseconds (ms) to respond to the search task with a key press, while the researchers recorded the time it took a participant to press the key, which measured their reaction time. 

On average, including the distractor image increased the search time for the participants. But, once again, the meditator group was able to ignore the distractions and perform the search task much more efficiently and faster than the non-meditator group. This, according to the researchers, indicates that the mindfulness meditators had more attentional control and resources compared to the non-meditators. Moreover, the results also showed that when negative emotions like angry faces or unpleasurable images were displayed, the distraction in both groups increased. 

“Negative emotional stimuli, like anger and fear, involve elaborate cognitive processing due to their threatening nature, compared to positive emotional stimuli. This may increase the processing time for negative stimuli and cause a delay in disengaging one’s attention,” remarks Prof Gupta, as to why negative emotions require more attentional resources than positive ones. However, while positive distractions were displayed, the mindfulness meditator group performed much better than the non-meditator group. Even under the high-load condition, which represents a situation where more of our mental resources are being used, mindfulness meditators were able to continue performing the search task better than the non-meditators. 

The results suggest that practising mindfulness meditation allowed individuals to reduce distractions and interference arising from positive and pleasurable emotions but not so much with negative emotions. This implies that the meditators had more attentional resources than the non- meditators to process the distractor images without affecting the search task. 

Both studies suggest that practising mindfulness meditation could help better control one’s emotions, improving one’s ability to focus on a task and avoid distractions. The studies are not without their drawbacks. The lack of a causal explanation for what changes mindfulness meditation makes to the brain means the explanations for the results of the studies are based on correlation and subject to interpretations. However, research into mindfulness and its effect on the brain is still nascent. Researchers have only just begun exploring new ways of determining the benefits of developing this ability. From helping children avoid distractions during their studies to helping adults experiencing negative, depressive thoughts to overcome these emotions, mindfulness can be a powerful mental faculty for people of all ages, and mindfulness meditation is a powerful technique to develop this ability.


Article written by:

Dennis C. Joy

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