Thursday, April 29, 2010

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Flexibility

One common shortcoming of mindfulness research is a reliance on self-report measures of mindfulness. Researchers can never be certain if participants are accurate in their self-ratings. In a recent study, two researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, Moore and Malinowski, made a useful contribution to the literature by including two measures of attention along with a self-report measure of mindfulness.

The researchers compared a group of 25 Buddhist meditators to a group of 25 non-meditators matched for age and gender. Participants were administered the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills, a self-report measure of mindfulness, and two attentional tasks: the Stroop Task and the d2-concentration and endurance test.

The Stroop is an older and well-known pencil-and-paper test in which participants are presented a series of words written in colored ink and asked to identify the color of the word. This task becomes tricky when participants are asked to identify colors in words spelling out the names of other colors (e.g., the word “red” written in green ink). When there in an incongruity between ink color and color name, reaction time slows and participants must refrain from reading the name of the color instead of identifying the ink. Mistakes made in misidentifying a stimulus are known as commission errors.

I’m not familiar with the d2, but the authors describe it as a speeded test that requires participants to discriminate a particular target from other similar non-targets. Participants may make errors of commission by identifying a non-target as a target, or errors of omission by not identifying targets, mistaking them for a non-target.

In short, meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on all aspects of the two attentional tasks. These tasks require both attention and cognitive flexibility in order to attend to the tasks through responding and inhibiting responses. Better performance was related to higher mindfulness. Analyses also suggested that cognitive flexibility was best predicted by two aspects of mindfulness: mindfully acting with awareness in everyday life and the ability to observe one’s immediate experience. Because the design was cross sectional, however, it is impossible to know for certain if meditation improves attention and cognitive flexibility, or if individuals attracted to meditation are higher in cognitive flexibility and attentional control.

You can find a link to the study at the second author's website.

Here’s the full citation:

Moore, A. & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness & Cognition, 18(1), 176-186

Monday, April 26, 2010

Website Spotlight: Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff, PhD, a researcher at the University of Texas – Austin, has created a research program around the concept of Self-Compassion. Self-Compassion is a construct based on Buddhist notions of compassion, mainly karuna (the word is the same whether one is using Pali or Sanskrit).

I think self-compassion is a really exciting offshoot of mindfulness research. Many Buddhist traditions have meditations specifically targeting compassion, and Dr. Neff (along with Paul Gilbert), has been a pioneer in transforming Buddhist conceptions of compassion into a legitimate area of scientific inquiry. I think self-compassion is a useful companion to understanding the processes of mindfulness, and researchers have already begun using the Self-Compassion Scale in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction studies. In the interests of self-disclosure, I conducted a study a few years ago examining self-compassion in individuals with trauma, that is available on the site.

The regularly updated Self-Compassion website contains research articles, a self-report measure, exercises, and a whole host of extra goodies and links. Check it out at

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How Analyzing Your Problems May Be Counterproductive

We’ve all had the experience when, the more we tried to figure something out, the worse we felt. Often we end up rehashing the same ideas over and over again. Psychology Today published an article about how trying to think our way out of our problems may be counterproductive. Instead, recent research at the University of California adds to a growing literature that suggests taking a more detached or distanced perspective from our problems may help to reduce anxiety, depression, and sadness. As the article notes, practicing mindfulness is one way to cultivate the ability to observe thoughts without getting caught up in them. Read the full article here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Meditation, Cortical Thickness, and Pain Sensitivity

There’s a small but growing body of research literature showing that meditation practice is associated with greater cortical thickness in the brain (i.e., Grant et al., 2010; Lazar et al., 2005; Pagnoni & Cekic, 2007). All three studies used MRI scans to examine brain structures. In Lazar et al. (2005), a group of Insight meditation practitioners, regions of the brain associated with attention and sensory processing exhibited an increased thickness compared to a control group matched for gender, age, race, and years of education. Interestingly, the average thickness in the prefrontal cortex in 40-50 year-old meditators was similar to the average thickness of 20-30 year-old meditators and controls. This suggests that practice may slow age-related degeneration of brain tissue. Pagnoni & Cekic found a similar pattern in Zen practitioners.

More recently, Grant et al. (2010) examined the relationship between cortical structures and pain sensitivity in meditators. The researcher first compiled a list of 68 meditators willing to participate. In order to have a more homogenous sample, they chose Zen practitioners, who both made up the largest tradition in the list and reported more than 1,000 hours of meditation experience. Of the 19 Zen practitioners, 17 participated; these were matched against 17 non-meditators for age and gender.

A computer controlled increase in temperature, which was designed to create a moderate level of pain, was applied to the inner left calf of each participant. Cortical size was measured using MRI scans.

Zen practitioner exhibited lower pain sensitivity than controls. On average, Zen practitioners required an increase to 50°C in order to report a moderate level of pain; controls required an average of 48°C. Lower pain sensitivity was also related to greater cortical thickness, particularly in the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex, right anterior insula, and bilateral hippocampal formation. Greater thickness in these areas was related to greater meditation experience. Because this was a cross-sectional study and not a true experiment, we can’t be certain that there is a causal relationships between meditation experience, cortical thickness, and pain sensitivity. Taken together, the authors suggest that long-term meditation practice may lead to changes in the brain structures, which in turn may lower sensitivity to physical pain. The full article can be read in the most recent edition of the scientific journal Emotion. Interview excerpts with the first author about this study can be found at Science Daily.

A PDF of the Lazar et al. (2005) article can be found at the first author’s website.

The citations for the articles are:

Grant J.A., Courtemanche J., Duerden, E.G. Duncan G.H., & Rainville, P. (2010). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators. Emotion, 10(1), 43-53.

Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893-1997.

Pagnoni, G., & Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging, 28(10), 1623-1627.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hey, Is That Me over There?: Scientific American

Buddhism, as well as other world religions hold that a separate self is illusory. Yet our normal experience seems to be one of separation, that we experience the world from a stable location and are separate from others. However, both scientific work in psychology and neuroscience is beginning to show how "self" is a fully constructed phenomenon. Scientific American recently published an interesting article describing several studies that show how the sense of self can be manipulated through various procedures, thereby demonstrating its malleability. Here's a excerpt from the article:
If there is anything about your “self” of which you can be sure, it is that it is anchored in your own body and yours alone. The person you experience as “you” is here and now and nowhere else.
But even this axiomatic foundation of your existence can be called into question under certain circumstances. Your sense of inhabiting your body, it turns out, is just as tenuous an internal construct as any of your other perceptions—and just as vulnerable to illusion and distortion. Even your sense of “owning” your own arm is not fundamentally different—in evolutionary and neurological terms—from owning your car (if you are Californian) or your shotgun (if you are Sarah Palin). Outlandish as such a notion may seem, what you think of as your self is not the monolithic entity that you—and it—believe it to be. In fact, it is possible to pharmacologically manipulate body ownership.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Metacognitive Therapy for ADHD

Also in ADHD news: Medscape Today posted an article about a 12-week social skills group intervention that exhibited reductions in inattention in a sample of adults with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The treatment was metacognitive therapy, a newer cognitive behavior treatment that helps people recognize maladaptive patterns of rumination and worry. In metacognitive therapy, clients are taught what is called "detached mindfulness" in order to them move towards a decentered relationship with their thoughts and respond to experiences with greater attentional flexibility. Detached mindfulness facilitates greater flexibility in relating to thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. In the study, the experimental group was matched for medication use to a control group that received supportive therapy. This study offers strong support for the use of a mindfulness-based intervention for ADHD.

You can read the full story here if you're signed into Medscape. If you're not signed in, you can still access the story if you Google the key terms and click on the link from a Google page. Other online publications such as Science Daily have also run it, but I think the Medscape posting is a little more precise.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mindfulness Meditation as a Potential Treatment for ADHD posted a summary of a really cool pilot study out of Duke University looking at the use of mindfulness meditation as an intervention for ADHD in adolescents and adults. Results suggest that the participants: 1.) Liked the intervention; 2.) Endorsed additional improvements in ADHD symptoms, even among those being treated with medication; 3.) Showed improvement on neuropsychological measures such as working memory and ability to shift attention; 4.) Exhibited reductions in anxiety and depression.

Although it’s too soon to call mindfulness meditation a stand-alone treatment for ADHD, this study provides some compelling data that it may be a useful complement to those with ADHD being treated with medication, particularly among those who may not respond as well to medication.

Read the full posting here:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cultivating Compassion Through Meditation

Science Daily has an article about some research Drs. Davidson and Lutz have done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It involves neuroimaging of meditators engaged in compassion practices compared with a control group of non-meditators. Results suggest that compassion is a quality that can be cultivated through practice.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kahneman on Happiness

At a recent TED Conference, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, gave a talk about an intriguing theory where he differentiates memories of happiness from the ongoing experience of happiness.It seems to me that his idea has interesting implications for the study of mindfulness.

In traditional notions of mindfulness, a person spends more time in the present moment -- according to Kahneman's theory, for this person, their experiential happiness would then be more influential. A person who is less mindful would spend more time thinking about past episodes of their life and thus be more influenced by remembered happiness. Perhaps a person who is more mindful will not be as influenced by memories of past unhappiness (or happiness) and vice-versa with a person who is less mindful. To me this was an interesting idea that could fairly easily be translated into a study, if it hasn't already.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Steve Hayes on Mindfulness, Prejudice, and Compassion

I first saw this talk by Steve Hayes, the primary creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, when he presented it at a conference in Philadelphia. At the time I was greatly moved and I saw several others around me who also had tears in their eyes. I'm glad its been put online where others can see this moving and controversial presentation. In this presentation, he does an excellent job of showing how a scientific view of mindfulness can be applied to the issue of human objectification and dehumanization.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nine Ways That a Meditating Brain Creates Better Relationships

In Psychology Today, Marsha Lucas, PhD, authored an article on why she recommends mindfulness meditation to couples as a way to improve their relationship. Dr. Lucas does a nice job of tying together some of the neuroscience research in explaining how meditation may affect the brain in a way that mediates more adaptive responding.