Like many mental health professional, the UK’s famed National Health Service (NHS) notes that “it can be easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much. Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.” This ability to “live in the present” is known as mindfulness, and some time before the NHS came into existence, it was already a core component of Buddhist practice, including vipassana, satipaṭṭhāna and anapanasati. A first step to achieve mindfulness is to avoid checking your email on your smartphone while you are engaged in a conversation.
If something attracts the attention of ancient Buddhists as well as today’s NHS, then it is likely to spread pretty far. Indeed, mindfulness is now being taught in many schools, at least in the UK and Australia. Some enticing training techniques include the 20 steps involved in the art of chocolate eating—from careful examination of the sound of the wrapper to meditations about its aftertaste.
But what are the underlying neurodevelopmental changes in the brain that arise from mindfulness training? A recent review article in the Psychonomic Society’s journalCognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience has tackled this question.
Researchers Kevanne Sanger and Dusana Dorjee surveyed the existing evidence for mindfulness-based neurodevelopmental change in adolescence, with a focus on event-related brain potential (ERP) markers. In a nutshell, they were interested in how the brain’s activity changes in response to mindfulness training. ERPs are a long-standing tool in experimental cognitive psychology and they offer the distinct advantage of providing a measure of cognitive activity without requiring a behavioral response—just the ticket if the goal is to learn something about “mindfulness.”
The ERP signal in response to a stimulus can be broken into several distinct components, some of which are highly reliable fingerprints of cognitive activity. For example, the “P300” component—a positive deflection in voltage that occurs around 300 ms after a stimulus is presented—is sufficiently reliable for people to be able to use it to communicate with a computer and to “type” letters by mere thought alone.
Sanger and Dorjee cover a lot of ground, from the effects of mindfulness training on attention to the effects on emotion regulation. Here I focus on the issue that I found particularly intriguing, namely the effect of mindfulness training on emotion regulation. Emotion regulation refers to your ability to absorb the comments of Reviewer 3 without adverse consequences for neighbors, colleagues, pets, or students. Emotion regulation is closely tied to attentional control: After all, emotions can be considered to be “stimuli”—albeit internal to a person—that compete for attention with other cognitive processes that are demanded by a situation. Attentional control, in turn, is something that takes considerable time to be acquired during development.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to a lack of emotion regulation arising from the different developmental trajectories of different brain systems: Specifically, the harm-avoidant and regulatory-control systems mature at a slower rate than reward-driven systems. In consequence, the latter systems exert more control over the behavior of adolescents compared to adults, explaining the poorer inhibition and more impulsive risk taking that is so common in adolescence. Mindfulness training may facilitate learning of attentional control processes that in turn may stabilize arousal and reduce harmful risk-taking. In support, Sanger and Dorjee cite the fact that proficient meditators—that is, people high in mindfulness—show less activation of brain regions that are dedicated to executive control when they are experiencing painful stimuli. Arguably, this may be indicative of the ability to “switch off” thinking about the pain, thereby facilitating emotion regulation. In further support, when adolescents undergo mindfulness training, their behavioral responses to pain are attenuated.
Similarly, the P300 component of ERPs has revealed mindfulness effects in attentionally complex situations, such as the Stroop task. In the Stroop task people have to name the color ink of a word under attentionally competing conditions (e.g., the word red printed in blue ink, requiring the response “blue”).
Another ERPs component of particular relevance to emotion regulation is the error-related negativity that is observed in response to errors—even when the participant is unaware of the error. This negativity is typically followed by a positivity, but only when the participant is aware of the error and hence shows an affective (“oh darn”) response. That is, there are two error-related components in the ERP that reflect conflict monitoring on the one hand (negativity), and awareness and affect on the other (positivity).
Intriguingly, the amplitude of the positivity in response to errors has been shown to decrease as a result of mindfulness training, without affecting the negativity. It follows that avoiding the emotional response (positivity) in response to an error might allow adolescents to learn from their mistakes without “self-punishment”—taking an error in stride rather than berating oneself offers an opportunity for learning. This mechanism, in turn has been linked to reductions in risk-taking and self-harm that can otherwise arise from highly emotional responding to errors.
The bottom line: Sanger and Dorjee have shown how analysis of neuroscientific data such as ERPs can disentangle different pathways by which mindfulness training can facilitate emotion regulation—and hence may reduce excessive risk taking—in adolescents.
So the next time your teenager wants the keys to the Ferrari, spend a few minutes teaching her how to eat chocolate. What sound did the wrapper make when you unwrapped? What was happening with your mouth, teeth, tongue, lips as it melted in your mouth?