Counting breaths to measure mindfulness

One of the greatest challenges to the scientific study of mindfulness is finding a way to objectively measure how mindful someone is. Only with a clear, unbiased measure we can we feel confident in when and why a person’s mindfulness changes, and what greater levels of mindfulness can mean for us. But mindfulness is a mental process, invisible to anyone outside our heads and sometimes even to ourselves. So how can we truly know whether someone is mindful, or has benefited from training to improve their mindfulness?

Most often, I have seen researchers use surveys created to look at what is called “trait” mindfulness, or how mindful we tend to be in our daily lives. Although surveys are carefully designed, not just thrown together (I wrote about the design process of the Cognitive Affective Mindfulness Scale), they are based on what people report about themselves and so are inherently limited by each individual’s perceptions. You can say you are more mindful, and even truly feel that you are more mindful, without actually being more mindful. Consider our hopes of showing the benefits of a meditation course on mindfulness. After devoting hours of your life over several weeks to a meditation practice, when someone hands you a questionnaire (such as the Mindfulness Awareness Attention Scale) that asks how often you “rush through activities without being really attentive to them.” you may feel that this had better be almost never so all this work and time hasn’t been a waste.

Studying the brain is another alternative, whether it’s looking for shifts in brain wave patterns after a few weeks of meditation or potentially permanent restructuring of the “default network” your brain enters when your mind is at rest.  Not only are these brain scanning methods prohibitively expensive and technical, however, they are only as good as our knowledge of the people whose brains we are studying. If someone sat through two weeks of meditation training without actually trying to meditate, for example, they would experience no brain changes, and including their scans in the study could mask the benefits experienced by those who actually learned meditation. To know that we are looking at the brains of the mindful, we again need some way of measuring their mindfulness.

This need has led one group of researchers to propose and extensively test a breathing task as an objective measure of mindfulness. For 18 minutes, people are asked to count their breath by nines, while holding a little hand-held controller. For breaths one through eight, they press one button on the control; for breath nine, they press another, and then restart at one again. If they realize they’ve lost track, they can press a special button to indicate that they were starting over without having reached the ninth breath.

This breathing task offers several objective measures for how accurately people track their own breaths. The researcher can tell if a person has lost count if they push the “nine” button too soon (after only six or seven breaths) or too late (after ten or eleven); the less often a person loses track of the breath, the more mindful they must be, able to sustain attention on this simple task without distraction. (For assurance of complete accuracy, one can even do as these researchers and hook up volunteers to a respiration belt that actually counts how often a person breathes in and out).


Photo by Joana Coccarelli. Used under creative commons license.

How accurately someone counts their breath does seem to get at how mindful they are. Every minute or so people were asked whether their mind was on task or wandering, and whether they had been aware of that before they were asked (a hint at their “meta-awareness”), and the more accurate counters reported being on-task more often, and aware of when they were off-task, with reasonably impressive correlation strengths (Pearson r’s around .40, right at the border between what we call a “moderate” and “strong” correlation). Although self-reported surveys have their problems, they are the best existing measure of mindfulness we have, so we would want any new behavioral measure to match them fairly well; breath counting accuracy correlated with both the MAAS and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, although those correlations were weaker (Pearson r’s around .20). And, of course, if this is a measure of mindfulness experienced meditators should be more accurate than non-meditators, which they were; although the non-meditators were quite good at counting their breaths with 90% accuracy, the meditators (14 people who had been meditation at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week, for 3 years) surpassed them with 95% accuracy.

The researchers also tried to show that breath counting was a distinct measure of mindfulness, not of your general cognitive control and ability to pay attention. I am sometimes guilty of conflating these two ideas, because cognitive control is what I study and it is so easy to see the need of cognitive control in how meditation helps you set aside intrusive thoughts and keep your focus on your breath, or the present moment. I found their very brief explanation of why mindfulness should not be cognitive control enlightening: mindfulness should “reduce  task-unrelated thought” not just by giving you a cognitive control mechanism of steering your mind away from those thoughts, but also by  “more fully saturating perceptual resources” (p. 6) so those thoughts never arise in the first place. In other words, by paying greater attention to that which is going on around you in the present moment, your mind (i.e., your perceptual resources) is occupied; your neurons are busy processing information about the present moment, which means they aren’t leaving room for random neurons to fire and trigger random thoughts. If those random neurons had fired, cognitive control might be needed to regulate them and bring your attention back, but if your mind is truly fully occupied with your current breath, then you aren’t going to have any off-task thoughts the need regulating.

Unfortunately, trying to show that the breath counting is not just cognitive control is where this research begins to falter. They did show that accurate breath counting is not the same as one cognitive control mechanism, working memory (measure in operation span, for the curious, with a Pearson’s r of only 0.05). However, there was another task that they said showed how breath counting was linked to another attribute of mindfulness, a “decreased influence of wanting” (p. 4), that seems just as interpretable as showing that breath counting is linked to stronger cognitive control. The basic idea of the task is that people learn that one particular color appearing on screen while they work means they’ll get a reward; then, later in the task, there are no more rewards but the color still appears. That color might still grab their attention, though, because it used to mean a reward, and slow them down from completing their main task because of that momentary distraction.

People who are better at counting their breaths are also less slowed by the appearance of that previously-rewarding color. Fair enough. But the researchers declare this to be because they are not as attached to reward and so find the color inherently less distracting. However, it could just as easily be that people do find the color distracting and want the old reward, but that their cognitive control kicks in more quickly and efficiently so they aren’t distracted for long. There doesn’t seem to be anything inherent in the task to distinguish whether they aren’t slowed because they are less drawn to the reward (the researchers’ preferred interpretation) or are drawn to it but recover and return to the main task quickly (my preferred interpretation). With their interpretation, they can say that counting the breath correlates well with a broad range of expected mindfulness benefits; with my interpretation, they have a problem separating out breath counting from any other measure of cognitive control.

This makes breath counting an important step in the right direction for identifying an objective, behavioral measure of mindfulness, but one still in need of more development to raise confidence that it truly is measuring something distinct. For now, I hope to see it appear more frequently alongside the MAAS and other self-report surveys so we can see how well the different measures match up in helping us understand who is mindful, and what mindfulness means for their behavior.
Levinson, D. B., Stoll, E. L., Kindy, S. D., Merry, H. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). A mind you can count on: Validating breath counting as a behavioral measure of mindfulness. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1202. PMID: 25386148

3 thoughts on “Counting breaths to measure mindfulness

  1. Very interesting post. I especially liked the critique of the researchers’ interpretation and your scepticism towards the object that the breath counting method measures.

    I, for one, would not accept this method as a measure of mindfulness, as it is common for meditators to experience images, thoughts, emotions, even elaborate, long, strong ones, even though they are not “in” those thoughts, but they experience/see them from a third perspective, so to speak. That is, it is perfectly OK to experience thoughts and not being engaged in some “task”, yet still being fully mindful of those thoughts. It is hard to imagine that one could as easily measure mindfulness by counting breaths, when the subject is experiencing thoughts.

    • I enjoyed reading this post, for the fact that the messurement of mindfulness seems very unmessurable. I do like how that case study was done with people who had a “trained” mindfulness by knowing how to meditate and only scoring 5% higher than the average person with out the learned ability to clear thier mind and stay focused on counting breaths. At frist I was exceited to read how the congitive psychology applied to this study, later discovered that counting breaths alone was not enough evidence to prove that it is a congitve skill.

      • Yes, measuring mindfulness seems very hard. In the case of the study being talked about in the current post the researchers actually measured attention, being focused on the task. And attention is not the same thing as mindfulness. Yes, these processes are related (probably most things in our minds are related to each other somehow), but it is easy to mistake one for the other.

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