Research Roundup

Research is trying to keep pace with the explosion of interest in mindfulness. Here’s a roundup of studies from the frontier.

Editor’s note: In the interest of sharing how mindfulness science is growing, we wanted to make recently-published research articles on mindfulness more accessible to our readers. Watch this space for the latest mindfulness research, curated for the Research Roundup department of Mindful magazine by The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Research Roundup
April 2015 issue of Mindful magazine

Disrupting Our Brain’s Bias
Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of the news. So it’s heartening to see a study that finds bias can be reduced through mindfulness training. Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people. Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate.

Have you ever had a bad feeling when helping someone, like guilt or resentment? In the January issue of the journal Mindfulness, C. Daryl Cameron and Barbara Fredrickson explored if mindful qualities could help people feel good about aiding others. They asked 313 adults if they had recently helped someone out—and if they had, then researchers asked them how they felt while helping. They also assessed the mindful traits of participants, asking if, for example, they often criticize themselves “for having irrational or inappropriate emotions.” In analyzing the answers, the researchers found that mindfulness did indeed lead to increased helping behavior. They also found that two facets of mindfulness—present-focused attention and nonjudgmental acceptance—specifically encouraged people to experience emotions like compassion, joy, or elevation during the act of helping.

Emodiversity: The Key to Happiness?
Is the route to happiness simply to feel more positive emotions and fewer negative ones? Some research already cast doubt on that view, and a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General lends an even stronger rebuttal.

Researchers from four countries and six institutions—including Yale University and Harvard Business School—measured participants’ positive emotions (like amusement, awe, and gratitude) and negative ones (like anger, anxiety, and sadness), considering both the level of these emotions and also their variety and abundance—what the researchers call “emodiversity.”

Their first study surveyed over 35,000 French speakers and found that emodiversity is related to less depression. This was the case for all types of emodiversity: positive (experiencing many different positive emotions), negative (many different negative emotions), and general (a mix of both). In fact, people high in general emodiversity were less likely to be depressed than people high in positive emotion alone.

With almost 1,300 Belgian participants, the second study linked emodiversity to less medication use, lower government health-care costs, and fewer doctor visits and days spent in the hospital. It was also related to better diet, exercise, and smoking habits. Surprisingly, the effect of emodiversity on physical health was about as strong as the effects of positive or negative emotion alone.

The message? Emotional monotony is a drag, so we may be better off mentally and physically if we seek out and embrace a variety of emotional experiences—even the negative ones.

Aiding Troubled Teens
It’s not easy teaching mindfulness to teenagers. Yet teens, especially troubled ones, might stand to gain more than most by cultivating moment-to-moment awareness. A team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine studied the responses of 27 at-risk, ethnically diverse students who had been randomly assigned to either a mindfulness or substance-abuse control class. As they taught the kids mindfulness, the team continually modified the teaching based on their feedback. At the end, they found teens in the mindfulness class were significantly less prone to depression and stress compared to those who attended the substance-abuse class. They also found the credibility of the mindfulness course among initially skeptical teens went up as the class went on through the semester.

Mindful Mom, Healthy Child
A new study finds there may be a link between the mind of a mother and the health of her infant. A Dutch and Belgian team of researchers gave 90 mothers with 10-month-old babies surveys designed to measure their levels of mindfulness and anxiety, asking such questions as whether they are “open to the experience of the moment” or if they “observe mistakes and difficulties without self-judgment.” The team then asked about the babies, to gauge their health and development, and found very strong evidence that mindful traits in moms are associated with better outcomes for the babies. This is a new area of study, but the preliminary results suggest that mindfulness training for pregnant women sure couldn’t hurt!

Research Roundup
February 2015 issue of Mindful magazine

Healthy Mind, Healthy Heart
Many studies have found that mindfulness can support our health, but the credibility of those studies has often suffered from small sample sizes. A new, authoritative study from Brown University looked specifically at the relationship between cardiovascular health and “dispositional mindfulness”—that is, an uncultivated and natural moment-to-moment awareness. The researchers measured the mindful traits of 400 people, asking participants if, for example, they tend to “break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else.” When the researchers analyzed those answers in relation to their health, they found strong evidence that being a mindful person went hand in hand with a healthier heart and lungs, often because these qualities were associated with not smoking and with getting regular exercise. In other words, moment-to-moment changes in thinking didn’t seem to improve health on its own—instead, mindful traits seem to boost positive behaviors and undermine negative ones.

Pain, Pain, Go Away
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the pioneering mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, has long cited evidence that mindfulness meditation helps with pain management. In a study published in the November 2014 edition of the journal Pain Medicine, Peter la Cour and Marian Petersen randomly sorted 109 patients with chronic pain into either an MBSR training program or a wait list control group. They measured pain, physical function, mental function, pain acceptance, and quality of life over a two and a half year period—and the researchers found that those who went through the training were significantly better at accepting and managing chronic pain, and seemed to have more vitality. While there’s nothing new or revolutionary about these results, it’s a critical part of the scientific process for findings to be confirmed or echoed in other studies—which in this case adds to the case for mindfulness in medical settings.

Socializing Makes You Smarter
Participating in complex and diverse social networks is part of what makes us human. Unlike other primates, you may be a child, a parent, a sibling, a spouse, an employee, a volunteer, a coach, a student, a member of a choir, and a friend. That’s a lot of hats to wear, which can be stressful. But a recent study in the journal Psychological Science suggests there are benefits as well.

George Mason University researchers Sarah Dziura and James Thompson asked 26 participants to fill out surveys about the size and diversity of their social networks, as well as how involved were they in each social role. The participants then underwent a two and a half hour functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, where one group watched a series of two-second videos that asked them to interpret body language.

The researchers examined activity in brain regions known to be involved in perceiving and interpreting nonverbal social cues, especially the right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS). They did indeed find more activation in the pSTS in people who had richer and more diverse social networks, though the results were less clear-cut in other regions. The bottom line, however, is that people who play more diverse social roles may be better able to perceive and decode nonverbal cues in a variety of social settings—a finding that needs to be confirmed by more studies. But this one does confirm something many people would consider to be common sense: Diversifying your social networks may increase your social and emotional intelligence.

Confident Leaders
Researchers at the University of Westminster measured the self-perception of leadership skills among a sample of senior managers in the London area, and then put them through a 12-week meditation training program. Their results, published in the Academy of Management Proceedings, revealed that training significantly enhanced overall self-confidence, as well as individual skills like inspiring a shared vision and demonstrating moral intelligence. However, the authors conclude, “meditation did not statistically significantly enhance participants’ skills as a role model and enabling others to act”—areas that will need more study in the future.

Less Reactive Parenting
Increasing evidence suggests mindfulness training can improve parenting skills. A new paper published in the Summer 2014 issue of the journal New Directions for Youth Development describes one group’s efforts to correct for methodological weaknesses and small sample sizes of previous papers by embedding their work in a well-tested, evidence-based family prevention program. Working with an experienced developer from the Strengthening Families Program, the researchers created activities based on core mindfulness practices, modified for parents, emphasizing managing reactions to negative feelings or behaviors in their kids. The results suggest that infusing mindfulness activities into an existing parenting program is viable and can provide many benefits to parents. Next, the authors plan to launch a trial with over 400 families. If successful, it may provide a model for programs around the country.

Research Roundup
December issue of Mindful magazine

Is a Sense of Purpose Key to a Longer Life?
Recent studies link a sense of purpose to a longer and healthier life. But these studies all had the same limitation: They focused on adults older than 60. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science explored whether the positive health effects of having a purpose in life also extend to younger adults. Researchers Patrick Hill and Nicholas Turiano followed over 7,000 adults for 14 years. During that time, nine percent of the sample died—and, in analyzing the data, the researchers found that having a sense of purpose was a critical factor in determining who lived, for how long. The researchers concluded that greater purpose still predicted greater longevity in adulthood. But perhaps most significantly, they found that maintaining a strong purpose can be as important to young adults as it is to older people.

Digital Mindfulness
Does mindfulness work in the bottom-line-driven workplace, or is it just a frivolous feel-good program? And can the training be delivered online, which saves money and offers maximum flexibility to the employee? A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine sought to determine whether an online mindfulness program, created for the Dow Chemical Company, could cut stress while enhancing the resiliency and well-being of employees. Eighty-nine participants completed scientific scales designed to measure their degree of stress, mindfulness, resiliency, and vigor. They were then divided into two groups—one to take the online class and one to sit on the wait list. After the first group finished, the researchers came six months later to see how everyone was doing. They found that the group that took the class was less stressed, more resilient, and more energetic than the group that couldn’t yet take the class. “This online mindfulness intervention seems to be both practical and effective in…enhancing overall employee well-being,” the researchers concluded.

Beating Negative Rumination
A study by Natasha Odou and Jay Brinker at Australian National University suggests that writing about a negative experience from a self-compassionate stance could significantly improve mood by allowing people to process (rather than avoid) negative emotions—a core mindfulness principle. The researchers also found that significant improvement in mood occurred after only 10 minutes of practice—meaning that people could use the exercise to improve their mood soon after a distressing event occurs. While staying aware of and open to their experience in the moment, they could also effectively avoid spinning into a ruminative, depressive downward spiral.

Odou and Brinker acknowledged that depression involves factors beyond negative mood that need to be taken into account. But their findings are important because self-compassion practice and rumination both involve the so-called “default mode” of processing in the brain, whereby the mind is free to meander or play, making new associations and links on its own.

This study suggests that while the brain is in that mode of processing, a self-compassionate writing exercise allows participants to stay open to and accepting of experience. Conversely, in that same mode of processing, writing in an unfiltered, emotionally expressive way leads to the kind of ruminative thinking that simply makes matters worse.

School Kids Less Stressed
In Frontiers in Psychology, German researchers systematically reviewed 24 studies of school-based mindfulness interventions. Collectively, these studies involved over 2,000 students, ranging in grade from first to twelfth. All in all, the researchers say, mindfulness-based interventions in children hold promise, particularly in relation to improving cognitive performance and resilience to stress. “The available evidence,” they conclude, “certainly justifies allocating resources to such implementations and evaluations.”

Mothers of Disabled Children Find Some Help for Anxiety
Many studies have focused on therapies for children with severe disabilities, but their parents’ stress has been largely overlooked. A new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests that mindfulness techniques can help moms caring for profoundly disabled kids. Elisabeth Dykens and her colleagues randomly assigned 243 mothers to a six-week group treatment program that employed either mindfulness techniques or positive psychology exercises designed to foster virtues like gratitude and patience. At the beginning of the study, 85 percent of the mothers reported significant stress levels—almost half were clinically depressed. Both treatments worked to reduce these problems. But the mindfulness group showed more immediate improvement than did those in the positive psychology intervention, reporting less anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The researchers suggest mindfulness may have a more visceral impact on the body.

Research Roundup
October 2014 issue of Mindful magazine

Mood and Mode: Does How We
Travel Affect How We Feel?

Not all modes of transit are created equal. Researchers studying how travel makes us feel found that travel alone has only a small impact on mood, but found wide variations based on our method of travel—whether by bike, plane, train, or automobile. Bicycle is reportedly the happiest mode of transport. Researchers posit that it’s because it’s the least passive—as we exercise our bodies release feel-good endorphins—and we focus our attention more on the outside world.

The Effects of Mindfulness
Skills on Chocolate Cravings

If you’re a chocoholic, take a tip from this study: Researchers put mindfulness skills to the test to determine how to best help people cope with cravings for chocolate. At the end of the two weeks, people who had learned to perceive their thoughts about craving as separate from themselves thought of themselves less often as a person with a weakness for chocolate. When they were asked to handle a piece of chocolate for a minute without eating it, they also had a smaller increase in craving for it as compared to a control group.

The Benefits of Gratitude
Here’s new evidence that gratitude can lead to greater happiness: Researchers took people on a wait list for psychological therapy and separated them into three groups: One kept a gratitude journal, another a kindness journal, and a control group just kept a journal of their moods. After two weeks those who kept the gratitude journal were on their way to being more grateful people. However, those who counted their kindnesses didn’t come out kinder because of it. That said, both the kindness and gratitude groups still enjoyed a higher percent of happy days over the mood-monitoring control group—all before they walked into a therapist’s office.

Purpose in Life as a
Predictor of Mortality

There’s evidence to show living a purposeful life can mean a longer life. A national longitudinal study including more than 7,000 participants examined health and well-being from youth to midlife. They found that those who expressed a strong sense of intent in life lived longer and in better health, even when considering other factors like maintaining positive relations with others.

Neural Signatures of
Affiliative Emotion

The ability to voluntarily increase brain activity associated with affection and tenderness toward others might sound like science fiction, but researchers have seen evidence of it. They used an fMRI to look at the brain activity of adult participants while they recalled a memory of strong affection toward a loved one. Half of the participants were given visual feedback of their brain activity in real time—a process called neurofeedback. The feedback demonstrated how their brain activity changed with positive emotions. A control group of participants saw a display not representative of their brain activity. After four successive sessions, people who were given visual neurofeedback had increased their brain activity signaling affectionate emotion as compared to the control group. Future studies could explore whether neurofeedback training could eventually translate to enhanced feelings of affection toward others and, in turn, promote pro-social behavior.

Research Roundup
August 2014 issue of Mindful magazine

What Mindfulness Practice is Right for You?
That may depend on the area in your life you’d like to address. After undergraduate students practiced a sitting meditation, a body scan, or mindful yoga for three weeks, they reported less rumination and greater self-compassion as benefits of the three practices. Sitting meditation led to the least self-judgment, while yoga led to the greatest increase in well-being.

Mindful Management
Being more present in your work can earn kudos, according to a recent study: Restaurant managers rated servers with higher mindfulness scores as having better job performance. It can work the other way, too: In another study, managers who were considered mindful had employees who were rated higher in job performance, and reported a better worklife balance.

Mindfulness and Student Stress During Speeches
In a new study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon, university students who were briefly trained in mindfulness meditation gave speeches and did difficult mental arithmetic while two evaluators interrupted them to point out their errors. Compared to a control group, students trained in mindfulness meditation reported feeling less stressed during the task, though their physiological stress response was greater. What does that mean? Most likely, mindfulness helped their body more actively engage in coping with stress.

Preschoolers and Yoga
Researchers at Syracuse University found that preschoolers who learned mindful yoga practices became significantly better at controlling their impulses and delaying gratification. That’s no small feat: Five decades of research suggests preschoolers who have better self-control ultimately fare better in school and in life.

Mindfulness Practice and Resistance to Relapse
A recent national survey revealed that 20.6 million Americans over the age of 12 were classified as substance dependent or abusers. Studies are now showing mindfulness practices may help reduce the risk of relapse for those who are getting help with their substance abuse disorders. Researchers in Washington and New Mexico compared three interventions: A traditional relapse prevention program, a 12-step program, and an intervention that integrates mindfulness practices and relapse prevention. Twelve months later, the program that integrated mindfulness practices and relapse prevention was the most successful in sustaining a reduction in drug use and heavy drinking.

Gray Matters: Meditation and Brain Structure
How does meditation alter brain structure? Researchers from Canada and Germany reviewed and analyzed 21 studies that looked at changes in the brain structure of people trained in meditation. They found meditation is consistently associated with changes in eight brain regions: those key to introspection and awareness about thinking patterns, body awareness, memory consolidation, self-control, emotion regulation, and communication within and between brain hemispheres.

Self-Compassionate Parents Make for Happier Teens
Parents, how do you handle your troubled teen? Rather than blame yourself for your kid’s suffering, cultivating a nonjudgmental stance may be a more effective way to help, according to a new study from researchers in the Netherlands. In the study, parents who reported less self-blame about their performance as a parent—one component of mindful parenting— had adolescents with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Research Roundup
June 2014 issue of Mindful magazine

Your genes do not determine your destiny—especially if you meditate, according to a recent study by researchers from Spain, France, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A group of experienced meditators practiced mindfulness for a day; when they were put in a stressful situation afterward, the genes and hormones that flare up in response to stress remained quiet—signs of healthy resilience that can lead to a longer life. But the stress response spiked in non-meditators. The meditators didn’t have better genes, just the ability to regulate how these genes affect their bodies and health.

Cookie Consciousness
Trying to be conscious of what you put in your body? Before you diet, take a moment to breathe. Researchers in the Netherlands had 110 hungry participants either listen to an audiobook or perform a mindfulness exercise—specifically, the body scan. Then the researchers did something cruel: They served chocolate chip cookies to the participants. Both groups ate the cookies—but those who did the body scan ate fewer, even though they were hungry.

If mindfulness programs seem too expensive or inconvenient, the solution might soon be at your virtual fingertips. People who completed an eight-week online mindfulness training reported feeling more accepting of themselves and significantly less stressed than people who didn’t take the training, according to a recent study. The results are comparable to those from in-person programs, offering preliminary evidence that online mindfulness trainings can be as effective as real-world programs while delivered at a fraction of the cost.

A survey of Australian college students suggests that certain mindfulness skills, like having a nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s thoughts and emotions, are related to high self-esteem. One group completed a 15-minute mindfulness meditation while the other read a story. The meditators scored significantly higher in self-esteem than the readers.

Research Roundup
April 2014 issue of Mindful magazine

Mindfulness meditation can help improve business decisions and prevent investment mistakes, according to psychological scientists from the INSEAD business school in Singapore and the Wharton School in San Francisco. They found that meditation helps people resist the “sunk-cost bias”—the tendency to continue an endeavor despite negative results in order to justify investments that have been made to date.

Teachers who participated in a mindfulness-based professional-development program reported improvements in their well-being and classroom performance, according to a recent study at Penn State University. After taking the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program, teachers said their relationships with their students, classroom management, and classroom climate all improved, while burnout and stress decreased.

Does mindfulness help lower blood pressure? Two new studies have been published that arrive at different conclusions. A study from the University of Toronto and York University in Toronto found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques weren’t useful in reducing the blood pressure for those with stage 1 hypertension. Yet researchers from Kent State University in Ohio found that patients with borderline high blood pressure successfully reduced it after taking an MBSR program. Watch this space for more research on this subject as it becomes available.

Research gathered by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and compiled and written by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.