The Science Of Mindfulness Part 3: Cognitive, Emotional And Neural Processes

The second section of the special mindfulness issue of Current Opinion in Psychology collects insightful papers regarding the basic science perspective of mindfulness. Discover a surprising but honest review of the anatomy of long-term meditators' brain as well as new findings regarding brain activity before, during and after meditating. Many of these papers clearly set the groundwork and directions for future researching generations.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

We are reviewing the 57 papers of the special Current Opinion in Psychology journal dedicated to the science of mindfulness.

In this third post, we delve into mindfulness from the current basic science perspective. How does one best measure mindfulness and what do those findings tell us about the impact of mindfulness on cognitive, emotional, and neural processes?

Find the bibliography at the end of this article.

On Measuring Mindfulness

In our previous article of this blog series, we already reviewed papers calling for new approaches to define what mindfulness is. This lack of clarity is extended from a conceptual to a scientific level. The journal’s second section “Basic science perspective” opens with a paper by Marieke van Vugt, Amir Moye, and Swagath Sivakumar. It reminds us that the variety of meditation practices and the lack of a single definition of mindfulness can obscure scientific hypotheses on meditation’s effects. The authors suggest the use of computational modeling as a means of defining meditation or mindfulness. In addition, computational modelling may be useful in making predictions regarding meditation’s benefits and in analyzing the cognitive processes and relevant mechanisms that make meditation work.

David R Vago, Resh S Gupta, and Sara W Lazar further explore the methodological limitations within the study of mindfulness in their paper. The team concludes that there are challenges when it comes to studying the effect of mindfulness on cognition. They suggest improvements in methodological rigor such as the use of longitudinal studies to corroborate past results, and to better isolate the specific mechanisms of mindful awareness.

In their article, Antoine Lutz, Jérémie Mattout, and Giuseppe Pagnoni call for a general understanding of meditation steeped in neuroscience: “We believe that significant further advances will depend on the successful modeling of the processes engaged by meditation within a mechanistic and quantitative framework of wide explanatory power, which can link together the core notions of attention, action, and perception.”

On The Definition And Application Of Decentering

Three of the articles in this section involve the concept of decentering. Decentering plays an explicit therapeutic role in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and is thus of great interest to those studying the clinical applications of mindfulness.

Decentering represents a metacognitive capacity to observe items that arise in the mind (e.g. thoughts, feelings, memories) with healthy psychological distance, greater self-awareness and perspective-taking.” — Anthony P King, David M Fresco

Amit Bernstein, Yuval Hadash, and David M Fresco propose a Metacognitive Processes Model of Decentering whereby “three interrelated metacognitive processes – Meta-Awareness, Disidentification from Internal Experience, and Reduced Reactivity to Thought Content – together constitute decentering.” By clarifying a new model of decentering, the team hopes to understand, measure, and manipulate decentering, thereby improving the effectiveness of Mindfulness Based Interventions:

“By advancing our understanding, capacity to measure, and to experimentally manipulate the metacognitive processes that may subserve decentering, we may be better able to design and deliver therapeutic interventions (e.g. MBIs) targeting these processes. Such efforts may be useful to improve the efficacy of interventions designed to reduce psychological vulnerability and improve mental health by means of cultivating decentering.” — Amit Bernstein, Yuval Hadash, David M Fresco

Eric L Garland and Barbara L Fredrickson review and extend the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory, or MMT, and explore its clinical application for addiction and chronic pain. Decentering is at the foundation of the MMT model, as a prerequisite to the experience of self-transcendence.

Anthony P King and David M Fresco discuss distress disorders and decentering as a method for reducing stress. The duo looks at the neural networks underlying clinical distress disorders and how Mindfulness-Based treatments which increase decentering may positively affect neurobehavior. King and Fresco also explicitely set the directions of future research:

“An important future direction will be to delineate whether MBI-linked changes in connectivity patterns may provide the neural basis for decreased identification with and emotional reactivity to spontaneously generated negative episodic memories in PTSD and depression, and negative or catastrophic future prospections that are central features of disorders of distress […].” — Anthony P King, David M Fresco

On Measuring Emotion And Emotional Regulation

Emily K Lindsay’s and John David Creswell’s work discusses experiential acceptance and its role in MBIs. In contrast to their review of self-report mindfulness literature, they found that monitor-only mindfulness interventions that develop the skill of paying attention are not effective in reducing stress or regulating emotions until paired with acceptance. This brings into question the effect of self-report studies and whether they indeed correlate to the underlying mechanisms of mindfulness. 

The difficulty in achieving a standard of measurement when it comes to emotions is addressed by Elizabeth A Hoge, Samantha R Philip and Carl Fulwiler. The team reviewed several studies on mindfulness and found that self-report was the sole method of measurement in over 90% of the current literature. The authors lament the lack of correlation to objective data or functional outcome, and the challenges in relying solely on the subjective and current emotional state of the participants. 

The group suggests using physiological measures of emotion, such as facial expression, changes in the central nervous system, measurements of eye-blink, stress hormones, or autonomic activity as an alternative means to measure emotion. They suggest the aim of the study and the study’s population also be considered when deciding how to best measure emotional traits.

“To be considered accurate, self-reports should ideally correlate with objective measurements (clinician-rated, behavioral, or physiological) and/or functional outcome, but they often do not, or these data are not available. Studies examining the correlation between self-report scales and physiological or behavioral outcome measures would be an important contribution to the field.” — Elizabeth A Hoge, Samantha R Philip, Carl Fulwiler

Amishi P Jha and her fellow scholars ask us to further research the role of working memory “in core processes such as emotion regulation, problem solving, and learning.” The authors suggest Mindfulness Training programs that achieve working memory benefits may be best positioned to promote other desired outcomes. They urge future scholars to apply changes in the brain’s working memory system as a metric to Mindfulness Training research:

“[We] encourage researchers to consider adding WM metrics (specifically, span and delayed-recognition tasks) in MT program evaluation research. Doing so could help shed light on the mechanisms of action by which MT results in a myriad of desired outcomes motivating its broad adoption.”Amishi P Jha et al.

On Mindfulness, Anatomy And Neural Correlates

The effects of long or short-term meditation on the brain anatomy are a popular topic in many articles praising the benefits of the practice. Eileen Luders and Florian Kurth summarize findings regarding the brain anatomy of long-term, consistent meditators versus controls. Although differences are observed (e.g., long term-meditators show more gray matter, thicker cortices, a higher fractional anisotropy), they cautiously decline to attribute the differences to meditation, as the lack of longitudinal studies leaves open the possibility that the differences between the two groups could have been present from birth.

The duo does not rule out that the identified brain anatomy of long-term meditators might be the reason why they have been drawn to meditation in the first place, “equipped [them] with the required prerequisites to reach desired states during meditation and/or experience rewarding effects (e.g., calmness, patience, clarity, focus, joy, loving kindness) that linger after meditation, thus providing an incentive to keep meditating over years.”

In an interesting study that monitors the activity of the brain before, during and after meditation, Yi-Yuan Tang, Rongxiang Tang, Mary K Rothbart and Michael I Posner find that meditation increases theta activity in frontal midline (FMθ) electrodes during meditation and in the resting-state immediately following meditation training. Further, after two weeks of mindfulness training, the group observed white matter changes in axonal density, followed by changes in both myelination and axonal density after just four weeks of training. Their study sheds light on how to enhance brain plasticity through mindfulness meditation.

More On The Science Of Mindfulness

The journal articles of the Basic Science Perspective chapter either explicitly or secondarily grapple with the intricacies and challenges of measuring mindfulness. 

Poppy LA Schoenberg and David R Vago ask ”how the finite biological structure and function of the brain give(s) rise to the seemingly infinite expanse that encompasses the terrain of the mind.”  Their paper explores the use of the electroencephalogram, or EEG, to map the activity of the brain during different types of meditation. 

Arnaud Delorme and Tracy Brandmeyer’s work drives home the practicality of scientific research with a look at what’s on the mind of every meditator: our arising emotions and thoughts. Their hypothesis is a simple one, “that chronic thinking associated with strong emotional arousal during meditation practice might be detrimental to meditation practice and well-being” and that “over time, meditation may help dampen the attention-grabbing power of these thoughts both during practice and in daily life.” 

The meditator instinctively knows this, but if and when the scientific community knows it too, and understands the underlying mechanisms of how meditation works, it’s possible that we’ll see more people practicing meditation, and a future of ever more efficient and effective mindfulness based interventions.

Bibliography: Learn more by reading each of the articles in Current Opinion in Psychology.

Marieke van Vugt, Amir Moye and Swagath Sivakumar, “Computational modelling approaches to meditation research: why should we care?,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 49-53.

David R Vago, Resh S Gipta and Sara W Lazar, “Measuring cognitive outcomes in mindfulness-based intervention research a reflection on confounding factors and methodological limitations,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 143-150.

Antoine Lutz, Jérémie Mattout and Giuseppe Pagnoni, “The epistemic and pragmatic value of non-action: a predictive coding perspective on meditation,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 166-171.

Amit Bernstein, Yuval Hadah and David M Fresco, “Metacognitive processes model of decenterin: emerging methids and insights,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 245-251.

Eric L Garland and Barbara L Fredrickson, “Positive psychological states in the arc from mindfulness to self-transcendence: extensions of the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory and applications to addiction and chronic pain treatment,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 184-191.

Anthony P King and David M Fresco, “A neurobehavioral account for decenterin as the salve for the distressed mind,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 285-293.

Emily K Lindsay and John David Creswell, “Mindfulness, acceptance, and emotion regualation: perspectives from Monitor and Acceptance Theory (MAT),” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 120-125.

Elizabeth A Hoge, Samatha R Philip and Carl Fulwiler, “Consideration for mood and emotion measures in mindfulness-based intervention research,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 279-284.

Amishi P Jha et al, “Does mindfulness training help working memory ‘work’ better?,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 273-278.

Eileen Luders and Florian Kurth, “The neuroanatomy of long-term meditators,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 172-178.

Yi-Yuan Tang, Rongxiang Tang, Mary K Rothbart and Michael I Posner, “Frontal theta activity and white matter plasticity following mindfulness meditation,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 294-297.

Poppy LA Scoenberg and David R Vago, “Mapping meditative states and stages with electophysiology: concepts, classifications, and methods,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 211-217.

Arnaud Delorme and Tracy Brandmeyer, “When the meditating mind wanders,” Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 2019, 133-137.

Meditation. Free.