The Mechanics of Mindful Improvements

Every now and then, just when I start to get comfortable thinking I understand how something works, some new evidence or theory is presented that makes me call into question the things that I thought I knew. After years of following the latest developments in contemplative science, I thought I had a handle on how meditation helped develop self-control. And now, a new theory has been proposed that is rocking my world. Meditation may not work the way that I thought it did.

Like many cognitive psychologists, I have been focused on the awareness aspect of mindfulness: when someone is mindful, they attempt to be aware of themselves and their surroundings; when someone meditates, they try to keep their awareness on a single event, such as their own breathing, and to catch their mind when it starts to drift away to other thoughts. Psychologists now consider attention (used synonymously with awareness most of the time), like other “executive functions”, to be a muscle that can be improved with practice, so the potential mechanism for benefiting from meditation seemed clear: practicing sustained attention would work out your self-control “muscle”, allowing it to get stronger in other situations so you can improve your ability to keep your attention focused, and to keep your attention away from distracting thoughts or desires that should be resisted (even in kids).

The mechanics of practicing attention to improve self-control seem so obvious that there was no need to look any further into how meditation or mindfulness could help. We do look for other mechanisms when we consider different kinds of meditation like loving-kindness, because that seems more connected to less cognitive and more social behaviors like compassion, but basic meditation could be boiled down to a straightforward, solitary mechanism of practiced attention.

Or perhaps not.

What that view of meditation is leaving out is the second component of meditation, acceptance of whatever thoughts or emotions may arise when you are trying to meditate. This was called “nonjudging” in the mindfulness-based stress reduction course I took, and it came easily enough to me (“Huh, I’m thinking about ice cream. How did that happen? Now, breathing again”) that I can’t say I’ve ever thought much about it. When I thought about the importance of teaching that aspect of meditation, it was mostly as a necessary step to keep people meditating, because at best judging yourself when you get side-tracked means more time thinking and less time meditation, and at worst people can mentally berate themselves so much for whatever arises that they give up on meditation entirely.

According to a new theory about the mechanics of mindfulness, however, acceptance may be just as critical for those self-control improvements as awareness is.

Think of when those cognitive improvements from mindfulness will be most helpful: emotional self-regulation, the equivalent of counting to 10 before responding to something so your response will be calm and not something you come to regret. The challenge here is that most emotions we experience do not start out intense; we rarely go from perfectly happy and content to a raging volcano from a single insult. Those intense emotions are the cumulative effect of multiple small events, the slings and arrow of a day that we might not really notice at the time but that still leave a mark. A half-dozen minor annoyances might pass unremarked upon, and then the seventh, even smaller one can cause an explosion. Unfortunately, by the time you do blow up at someone, you can know you’re angry and behaving badly, but trying to stop it is like trying to stop an avalanche. There might not be enough meditation practice you can fit into a day to boost your self-control to the point of stopping a flow of angry emotion that strong.

The first paradigm-shifting perspective on meditation from this theory is exactly how enhanced awareness could help with your self-regulation. Instead of (just) helping you exert some forceful control against avalanches, awareness might actually help you by making those early marks from minor insults more painful. Being aware of your body and its reactions may help you notice the subtle shifts that indicate that annoyance at those early insults, and being aware of those physical changes might actually make the emotions stronger (by the theory that emotions stem from our bodies, which I last wrote about in an exploration of whether facial expressions or feelings come first). Intensifying those minor emotions may actually be a good thing, though, because that intensity would signal a need for us to start calming ourselves down, so the mark is erased instead of merely unnoticed, and there’s less chance of accumulation leading to a blowout.

The second paradigm-shifting perspective is that acceptance is just as important, and also in a counterintuitive manner: striving to accept our emotions may help us recognize when we need to regulate them. When we are not in the habit of accepting our emotions, our first instinct with a negative emotion like guilt or anger is to suppress; squash the negative emotion like a bug so it doesn’t interfere with your day. When we practice acceptance, though, we learn not to suppress those initial, negative responses. Which can be critical to stopping an explosion before it starts, because those initial responses are what tells us that it might be time for a bit of thinking through or self-regulation that can, again, erase the mark left by the negative event so it can’t accumulate into something more.

The mechanics at work here are really the same ones I saw a few weeks ago when I wrote about how practicing compassion alters the brain. In that case, a brain region call the inferior parietal junction (IPJ), responsible for understanding how other people feel, responded to an unfair event more strongly, which seemed to trigger the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the seat of our self-control, to help regulate emotional responses (decreasing any guilt and increasing the reward felt for intervening). This new theory says that practicing awareness will also enhance our own emotional responses to whatever negative thing is happening directly to us (not the IPJ, but in some other emotional seat of the brain), and that practicing acceptance will ensure we don’t try to brush off that response, and instead deal with it. The PFC and the improved focused attention may come back into play to help us regulate those emotions, but instead of being front and center it’s now just the third step in a chain that wouldn’t even be called into play without the first two steps falling into place.

This is not an empirical research paper, but a literature review, synthesizing ideas from previous research to lay the foundation for a new theory. So, there’s no direct evidence that this is indeed what’s happening inside the mindful mind. The most compelling evidence they have is prior research showing that people who are more accepting of their emotions also have stronger brain responses to their own mistakes, so that is what I will be reading next. The hope is that this theory will inspire research to be done, with a new approach to the importance of acceptance, and less certain on the part of the researchers that we know exactly what we should be looking for.
Teper, R., Segal, Z., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Inside the Mindful Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22 (6), 449-454 DOI: 10.1177/0963721413495869


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