Brief mindfulness improves brains ability to focus

Aarhus University study finds brief mindfulness improves brains ability to focus while greater practice required to train emotion.


This week an Aarhus University-led team of researchers at the Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN), in collaboration with researchers at Wisconsin-Madison and University College London, found evidence that brief mindfulness training is effective for training attention-related neuroplasticity, while emotional benefits appeared to require more extensive training.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), two groups of participants completed an “affective stroop task” during scanning before and after training. The experiment required participants to view emotional images while completing an attention-demanding task, enabling the investigation of both attention and emotion benefits. Increased brain responses to emotional stimuli where found only in those participants with the most practice, suggesting that such benefits may require greater training and depend upon first developing attentional skills. Overall, the meditation group showed better attention performance and increased brain activity in regions associated with executive function. Executive function consists of skills such as paying attention for long periods, resisting distractions, and cognitive flexibility. Disruption of these abilities has been linked to disorders including addiction and post-traumatic stress, which are known to respond positively to mindfulness training.

While studies have previously linked mindfulness and other meditation practices to benefits in brain, health, and behavior, these benefits have not been evaluated when rigorously controlling for confounds such as motivation and expectation, both of which can have a strong impact on attention and emotion measures. To control for these effects, the researchers constructed a specialized control training using guided group readings of Jane Austin’s novel Emma, led by a trained instructor. By requiring both mindfulness and control groups to complete equal amounts of training under the guidance of an experienced teacher, the researchers could compare changes in attention and emotion while addressing previous limitations. Additionally, on several behavioral measures of self-awareness and executive function, both groups showed equivalent improvements over time underlining the need for active controlled mindfulness research.

Lead investigator and first author Micah Allen said,

“This study is a significant step forward for research on mindfulness and neuroplasticity, as we could not previously conclude that brief mindfulness effectively trained attention-related neuroplasticity in novices. An interesting question for future research is whether emotional skills in general are more difficult to train than attention. These findings may have important implications for mental health research, where mindfulness is an increasingly popular treatment for a variety of disorders. If emotion is indeed a more difficult target for training, mindfulness programs may need to be specifically tailored to these demands when treating related disorders such as anxiety and depression.”

“One novelty of our study is to suggest progressive stages of mindfulness training: early stages of mindfulness training are effective for training cognitive control, whereas increased affective sensitivity occur only in the participants who practice the most.” Says co-author Antoine Lutz.

“This indicates that mindfulness training is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach” adds Andreas Roepstorff.

"We may need to pay much more attention both to the specific context of mindfulness training, and to individual differences in practitioners”.

The study was published October 31st 2012 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

This work was supported by grants from the Ministry of Health, Denmark, Knowledge and Research Center for Alternative Medicine), project “Mechanisms of mindfulness training,” the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (P01-AT004952), the Adam J. Weissman Foundation, and by a grant from the Wellcome Trust (082334).

The authors acknowledge the support of the MINDLab Investment Capital for University Research fund.

Research, Forside