Mindfulness Training Modifies Subsystems of Attention

Article excerpt

Mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment. We investigate the hypothesis that mindfulness training may alter or enhance specific aspects of attention. We examined three functionally and neuroanatomically distinct but overlapping attentional subsystems: alerting, orienting, and conflict monitoring. Functioning of each subsystem was indexed by performance on the Attention Network Test (ANT; Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner, 2002). Two types of mindfulness training (MT) programs were examined, and behavioral testing was conducted on participants before (Time 1) and after (Time 2) training. One training group consisted of individuals naive to mindfulness techniques who participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course that emphasized the development of concentrative meditation skills. The other training group consisted of individuals experienced in concentrative meditation techniques who participated in a 1 -month intensive mindfulness retreat. Performance of these groups was compared with that of control participants who were meditation naive and received no MT. At Time 1, the participants in the retreat group demonstrated improved conflict monitoring performance relative to those in the MBSR and control groups. At Time 2, the participants in the MBSR course demonstrated significantly improved orienting in comparison with the control and retreat participants. In contrast, the participants in the retreat group demonstrated altered performance on the alerting component, with improvements in exogenous stimulus detection in comparison with the control and MBSR participants. The groups did not differ in conflict monitoring performance at Time 2. These results suggest that mindfulness training may improve attention-related behavioral responses by enhancing functioning of specific subcomponents of attention. Whereas participation in the MBSR course improved the ability to endogenously orient attention, retreat participation appeared to allow for the development and emergence of receptive attentional skills, which improved exogenous alerting-related process.

Mindfulness has been defined as a process of "bringing one's complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis" (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68) and as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Numerous meditation-based practices are used to train individuals to experience mindfulness. The most widely practiced form of mind- fulness training (MT) is known as sitting meditation. In this technique, participants are instructed to sit in a re- laxed, upright posture and to direct their full attention to the sensations of breathing. They are instructed to return their attention to the breath whenever it wanders. Thus, a fundamental aspect of MT is attentional training, and the task instructions of mindfulness techniques emphasize the role of attention.

Although MT has its roots in numerous cultural medita- tion practices (Wallace, 1999), it has recently become more widely available in medical contexts. Over 250 medical centers around the United States offer mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs. These programs are typically conducted as courses that meet once a week for 8 weeks and teach participants to use mindfulness-based techniques (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992). The effectiveness of MBSR for a variety of physical and psychological disorders has been examined in many studies (see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). There is growing evidence that MBSR is effective in the treatment of many conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, substance abuse, binge eating, and skin diseases (Astin, 1997; Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985; KabatZinn et al., 1992; Kristeller & Hallett, 1999; Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999; Speca, Carlson, Goodey, & Angen, 2000; Teasdale et al. …