Over the last decade, the scientific community has produced numerous studies looking at how mindfulness practice influences our minds, our bodies and our behavior. Today, we are beginning to understand some of the physical and mental underpinnings of how mindfulness can change our lives.
Mindfulness is considered to be multifaceted within the field of scientific research. For example, while some studies define mindfulness as present focused-attention, others will refer to it as open monitoring of the present moment experience without judgment. In psychological science, mindfulness is regarded as a state of mind, a personality trait, a meditation practice, and also a psychological intervention. Questionnaires, such as the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), are also designed to capture different aspects of mindfulness, such as how “observant”, “aware”, “descriptive”, “non-judgmental” or “non-reactive” you are.
In a recent study, scientists from Michigan State University were keen to address some of the conceptual nuances in mindfulness research. They were interested in the question: Which aspects of mindfulness are responsible for the emotional regulatory effects associated with mindfulness? Is it 1) as a meditation practice, 2) as a state of mind, or 3) as a natural dispositional trait?
A quick look at the study: Deconstructing the Emotion Regulatory Properties of Mindfulness
To find out, they recruited 68 females aged 18 to 22, all of whom had never practiced mindfulness before. To measure their dispositional mindfulness trait (i.e. their ‘natural mindfulness’) they filled out the FFMQ and were given an “Acting with Awareness” score. The experiment consisted of two parts: in part one, the women either listened to a guided mindfulness meditation (listeners were instructed to attend to their present-moment experience in an open, non-judgmental way, noticing feelings, thoughts or physical sensations that arise.), or a non-meditation voice recording (a TED talk about second languages); in part two, they then had to look at a series of images, some designed to evoke emotionally negative responses (e.g. a bloody corpse) and others designed to be emotionally neutral. In part two, the women were either told to view the pictures “naturally”, or they were given specific instruction to view them “mindfully” while being aware of any sensations, thoughts and emotions that arose, without trying to change or judge them.
While viewing these images, the scientists also used a very time-sensitive method to measure electrical brain signals (from the surface of these women’s scalps). This particular brain signal, called the Late Positive Potential (LPP), is like an “electrical signature” of emotional reactivity that appears right after they view each image. The LPP signals are larger and stronger when the women are more emotionally reactive, and smaller when they are less emotional.
By looking at how big or small the LPP was in each of these women when they viewed the disturbing images, the authors were able to determine whether the effect of emotional regulation resulted from 1) an actual mindfulness meditation, or 2) from instructions to simply be in a mindful state, or 3) just from a natural disposition to be mindful.
Individuals who are naturally mindful can effectively regulate their emotions even without meditation, but for those who are not naturally mindful, simply forcing oneself to be mindful “in the moment” is not enough — it is necessary to engage in mindfulness meditation in order to effectively regulate your emotions.
In a nutshell, what they found was this: Those who were naturally mindful showed lower LPP (less emotionally reactive) even without a meditation or instruction for mindful viewing; A short guided mindfulness meditation is effective in lowering the LPP (decreases emotional reactivity); Being instructed to induce a mindful state without meditation did not affect the LPP (no emotional regulatory effects).
Simply put, the authors argued that individuals who are naturally mindful can effectively regulate their emotions even without meditation, but for those who are not naturally mindful, simply forcing oneself to be mindful “in the moment” is not enough — it is necessary to engage in mindfulness meditation in order to effectively regulate your emotions.
It is important to note that the notion of ‘natural mindfulness’ in this particular study is only defined as how well individuals act with awareness, and it may be possible for this to increase and decrease depending on time and environment in one’s life, or due to the regularity of meditation practice habits.
The practice of mindfulness helps us pay attention to and be present with the myriad of different feelings and sensations that we experience in life as human beings, and is especially helpful for observing the negative ones that we tend to want to push away. This study shows us that for this to happen, it is not enough to rely on being in a “mindful state” by telling ourselves to simply “be mindful”. Instead, it is important to keep up a regular practice in order to maintain a consistent state of mindfulness — like a plant, we have to water it regularly, not just when it is on the brink of dying.