To evaluate the impact of an intensive period of mindfulness meditation training on cognitive and affective function, a non-clinical group of 20 novice meditators were tested before and after participation in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. They were evaluated with self-report scales measuring mindfulness, rumination and affect, as well as performance tasks assessing working memory, sustained attention, and attention switching. Results indicated that those completing the mindfulness training demonstrated significant improvements in self-reported mindfulness, depressive symptoms, rumination, and performance measures of working memory and sustained attention, relative to a comparison group who did not undergo any meditation training. This study suggests future directions for the elucidation of the critical processes that underlie the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness-based interventions
Processes underlying mindfulness training
A number of processes have been proposed to underlie training in mindfulness. The most commonly cited of these is relaxation, although it has been suggested that this is at most a beneficial side effect of mindfulness practice, rather than an inherent process. Another hypothesized process is a reduction in over general autobiographical memory. Acknowledging rather than evaluating thought processes circumvents the usual cognitive defenses which attempt to prolong or avoid such processes. This results in an increased range and flexibility of actions (Hayes, 2003) and has been termed cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness training may also facilitate metacognitive insight. This represents a transition toward viewing thoughts as ephemeral mental events, rather than as direct representations of reality. Such ‘‘decentering’’ somewhat distances us from our problematic thoughts and emotions, allowing us to address them consciously rather than merely reacting to them.
It is possible that some of these processes depend, at least initially, on the development of attentional control and other executive cognitive functions. The emphasis of mindfulness practice on the present moment potentially enhances the capacity for sustained attention, attention switching, and inhibition of elaborative processing. Working together with the processes outlined above, this amplifies one’s potential for self-regulation and allows attention to be redirected from depressive or anxious rumination back to the experience of the present moment. This may result in decreased negative affect and improved psychological health.