Many ways to be mindful

Not long ago I started thinking about the possibility that different types of meditation might lead to different benefits – loving kindness might contribute to social connections and empathy, perhaps, while a body scan might provide some specific health benefits by helping people get in tune with their bodies. The logical next step is to recognize that just as there are many ways of meditating, there are many ways of being mindful. You can be mindful of your body, your emotions, your thoughts, your work, or the people around you; some of these come more easily than others. And some of those might influence your brain and behavior in different ways than others.

Today I’m interested in two ways of being mindful, as identified by the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Scales (KIMS). One component of mindfulness is dubbed “mindful observing”, and is measured by agreement to statements like “I intentionally stay aware of my feelings” and “I notice changes in my body, such as whether my breathing slows down or speeds up”; consistent with its name, it emphasizes of noticing things. The other component of mindfulness is called “acting with awareness”, and it focuses more on whether you choose to pay attention to the thing you are doing, so you would say yes to “When I’m doing something, I’m only focused on what I’m doing, nothing else” and no to “I tend to do several things at once rather than focusing on one thing at a time.” Although both do get at what I think about when I think about mindfulness, they are not correlated, meaning that I cannot guess whether you act with awareness based on just whether you mindfully observe things. This makes them two different ways of being mindful.

These were also the two ways of being mindful  selected for study by researchers interested in how well mindfulness translates into saving ourselves from our own imagination – or more scientifically, into recruiting brain regions to reduce the emotional impact of imagining bad things happening to us.

Think for a moment of the different kinds of future events that creep into your mind when you’re not dutifully focusing on the present moment. You might revisit that time your friends gossiped about you, or your boss told you off (episodes of “social rejection”). Hopefully you also spend some time thinking about instances where your boss praised you, or your friends celebrated with you (“social affection”). More rarely, you might imagine what you’ll do if you’re walking to your car one night and it seems like someone is following you (“non-social anxiety”) or anticipate the wonders of that massage you’ve scheduled (“non-social relaxation”). I’m among those who has spent some mental energy on all four types of scenarios…but does being a generally mindful person mean I imagine them differently? Not too surprisingly, it depends on what kind of mindful person you are.

If you are a (right-handed female*) “mindful observer”, then while you are imagining these scenarios your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex will be in overdrive, working harder than the non-mindful-observer’s at its task of regulating the emotional regions of our brain so they don’t run amok. At least, that’s what we think it’s doing; this kind of mindfulness didn’t seem to influence how strongly people felt the negative or positive emotions provoked by those imagined scenarios, so we can’t be sure what inspires this brain region to kick into high gear as a result of this mindful trait.

On the other hand, if you are more inclined to “act without awareness”, this doesn’t tell us anything about your brain activity while you’re imagining emotional scenarios. It does suggest that you’re more likely to feel anxious and fearful after imagining that someone’s following you to your car. Possibly this is just because you give your all to whatever task is at hand, and therefore did a really good job of constructing a detailed horror story in the parking garage (but not, for some reason, of the social rejection scenarios).

While there are many things we don’t know about how these types of mindfulness are playing out in brain and emotion, this research does make a fairly compelling case that some kinds of mindfulness might help us regulate our emotions and others may not. Take any finding that a mindful disposition – from balancing work and life to treating gambling problems –  and the immediate question should kind of be, what kind of mindful disposition?

Don’t be surprised if answering those questions takes time, though. The reason that researchers often gloss over the distinctions of different types of meditation and mindfulness is that once you start expecting that this trait will produce a change in behavior, but that one won’t, the difficulty of describing the results becomes incredibly complicated; I found myself creating a chart to keep track of the results in this 5-page article, and a full accounting of the different types of mindfulness and brain regions getting involved would be even more complex. Which is good news, from a research perspective, because we will have plenty of new questions to keep us busy.

*Only right-handed women participated in this study; right handed participants are pretty standard for brain research, but it also reminded me that when it comes to emotional responses, handedness might matter.
Frewen, Dozoisa, Neufelda, Lane, Densmore, Stevens, & Lanius. (2010). Individual differences in trait mindfulness predict dorsomedial prefrontal and amygdala response during emotional imagery: An fMRI study Personality and Individual Differences, 49 (5), 479-484 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.008


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