The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Cognitive Style and Attention – A Study

Abstract

To evaluate the impact of an intensive period of mindfulness meditation training on cognitive and affective function, a non-clinical group of 20 novice meditators were tested before and after participation in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. They were evaluated with self-report scales measuring mindfulness, rumination and affect, as well as performance tasks assessing working memory, sustained attention, and attention switching. Results indicated that those completing the mindfulness training demonstrated significant improvements in self-reported mindfulness, depressive symptoms, rumination, and performance measures of working memory and sustained attention, relative to a comparison group who did not undergo any meditation training. This study suggests future directions for the elucidation of the critical processes that underlie the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness-based interventions

Processes underlying mindfulness training

A number of processes have been proposed to underlie training in mindfulness. The most commonly cited of these is relaxation, although it has been suggested that this is at most a beneficial side effect of mindfulness practice, rather than an inherent process. Another hypothesized process is a reduction in over general autobiographical memory. Acknowledging rather than evaluating thought processes circumvents the usual cognitive defenses which attempt to prolong or avoid such processes. This results in an increased range and flexibility of actions (Hayes, 2003) and has been termed cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness training may also facilitate metacognitive insight. This represents a transition toward viewing thoughts as ephemeral mental events, rather than as direct representations of reality. Such ‘‘decentering’’ somewhat distances us from our problematic thoughts and emotions, allowing us to address them consciously rather than merely reacting to them.

It is possible that some of these processes depend, at least initially, on the development of attentional control and other executive cognitive functions. The emphasis of mindfulness practice on the present moment potentially enhances the capacity for sustained attention, attention switching, and inhibition of elaborative processing. Working together with the processes outlined above, this amplifies one’s potential for self-regulation and allows attention to be redirected from depressive or anxious rumination back to the experience of the present moment. This may result in decreased negative affect and improved psychological health.

Conclusions

The benefits of the mindfulness training were reflected in significantly enhanced self-
reported levels of mindfulness, significantly reduced self-reported depressive symptoms,
reflective rumination, and negative affect, and improvement on some indices of
executive cognitive function.
As hypothesized, the mindfulness training group’s working memory capacity was
significantly enhanced. This is a novel finding, and is particularly noteworthy as it
suggests that mindfulness practice may increase working memory capacity. It may thus
have widespread application as an intervention in a broad range of psychological
conditions that are characterized by working memory deficits, such as Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia.
While previous studies have indicated benefits of mindfulness training for psychological wellbeing, the present study is the first to systematically explore the cognitive and affective effects of an intensive period of mindfulness training. Furthermore, while previous research has tended to focus largely upon the effects of mindfulness meditation, the present study represents an attempt at elucidating some of the cognitive processes underlying these effects.

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