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Mindfulness Mechanics: Peeking Under the Hood

One researcher probes the mechanisms behind mindfulness.

Guest post by Zan Isgett

Pay attention to what you’re thinking right now. What am I cooking for dinner tonight? Hmm, my boss seemed rude this morning. Wow, I really should be working towards that deadline. I haven’t called my dad in a while; I should do that this weekend. Or, think back to the last time you engaged in another endless Facebook or Instagram scrolling session. Though our bodies exist in a world of sounds and sensations, our minds are seldom along for the ride. Instead, we flit between paying attention to the present moment and getting lost in thoughts of the past or the future. However, that ability to attend to the present moment is precisely the delicate phenomenon that Carrie Adair, doctoral candidate in UNC’s Social Psychology program, endeavors to study.

"My Mind" by Sophia D / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND
Source: "My Mind" by Sophia D / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

Specifically, Adair studies the concept of mindfulness and its consequences for relationships, emotions, and well-being. At first, some people squirm when they hear the word “mindfulness” – it brings to mind images of bespectacled yogis bestowing Nag Champa-infused bits of wisdom. While it may have initially entered Western culture on the backs of those interested in Eastern philosophy during the 1960s, the concept itself is ancient, and in recent decades has blossomed into a fruitful area of study for psychologists and clinicians alike. Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn1 is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” And while everyone’s level of mindfulness shifts moment to moment, mindfulness can also be conceptualized an individual trait that varies across people. In addition, people can strengthen their ability to be mindful through practices like meditation.

Psychological scientists champion the benefits of mindfulness2, as it has been shown to be effective at managing stress, enhancing relationships, and may even help reduce pain. However, Adair seeks to understand why mindfulness is so good. Her work is dedicated to uncover the psychological mechanisms through which mindfulness exerts its positive influence. For instance, she hypothesized that mindfulness influences our automatic cognitive processes. Everyone has feelings and attitudes that are just outside our conscious awareness, but this can be harmful when our implicit prejudices influence our behavior towards others. Since mindfulness contains an element of open awareness and non-judgment, Adair hypothesized that people who are more mindful may show less implicit bias. To test this idea, she brought participants into the lab and measured their levels of mindfulness and implicit bias against homosexuality. Trait mindfulness was measured using a self-report questionnaire, and implicit bias was measured using a task called the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP). During the AMP, photographs are flashed very briefly on the computer screen, followed by an unfamiliar symbol (usually a Chinese pictograph). Participants must then indicate whether or not they find the symbol pleasant or unpleasant. Any implicit affect (feelings) aroused from the photographs may still linger and influence the judgement of the symbol. This task has been found to be an effective and sensitive measure of implicit affect3. Adair found that, when presented pictures of heterosexual and homosexual couples, participants high in mindfulness responded with greater equanimity (i.e. non-judgment) towards both sets of pictures, in contrast to less mindful people, who were more influenced by their implicit negative bias towards homosexual couples4. Because implicit attitudes have a real effect on behavior, this finding suggests that by boosting our own level of mindfulness (through meditation or other mindful exercises), we may be able to behave with less automatic bias towards others.

Beyond the potential implications of mindfulness on our daily interactions with others, Adair is interested in the ways through which mindfulness can benefit romantic relationships. She hypothesizes that mindfulness can boost relationship satisfaction by enhancing responsiveness and attunement to others. Currently, she is studying data from couples in a North Carolina community. In the lab, couples were videotaped as they engaged in a conversation about something that was concerning them. Adair’s team of research assistants coded the behavior of each partner during the interaction: Did he affirm her concerns? Did she ask follow-up questions, or did she just move on to the next topic? By quantifying human behavior in this way, Adair can test whether mindful individuals are more responsive and attuned to their partners, and whether the partner is able to perceive and benefit from this behavior5.

So what should the average person do with this information? Do we all need to start meditating? Not necessarily. There are ways to practice being mindful in our everyday lives that anyone can do. Adair suggests one place to start is to choose a daily activity where your mind tends to wander and try to pay greater attention to the present moment. She describes a rather pleasant experience for a mundane chore – washing dishes. “Put your full attention on how the water feels on your hands, how the soap smells, how the bubbles look, how the pan feels in your hands. You might start to notice that activities that you think of as ‘time-sucks’ can actually be enjoyable!” Remembering to pay attention to the present may prevent your mind from wandering to that awful scenario that inevitably replays itself in your mind. This type of thinking – rumination – has been linked to developing depression, so when you find yourself starting to play that broken record, stepping back to experience the present moment may be an effective way to break the cycle of negative thinking. As Adair’s research in this field suggests, when we don’t succumb to our everyday distractions and our attention is on the present, we might be more likely to be more productive or connect with others. That is something worth keeping in mind.

Zan Isgett, author of this post.
Source: Zan Isgett, author of this post.

AUTHOR NOTE: This blog entry was written by guest author Zan Isgett, M.A., a graduate student in Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (a.k.a., PEP Lab) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From time to time members of PEP Lab, past and present, join Barb here to highlight the virtues of positivity.Original version posted on The Pipettepen.

1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
2. Sedlmeier, P., Eberth, J., Schwarz, M., Zimmermann, D., Haarig, F., Jaeger, S., & Kunze, S. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1139-1171.
3. Payne, B. K., Cheng, C. M., Govorun, O., & Stewart, B. D. (2005). An inkblot for attitudes: Affect misattribution as implicit measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(3), 277-293.
4. Adair, K. C., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2014, April). Mindfulness and Automatic Affective Reactivity. Data blitz presented at the Positive Emotions Preconference for the first annual conference for the Society for Affective Sciences, Bethesda, MD.
5. Adair, K. C., Algoe, S. B., & Boulton, A. J. (2015). Trait mindfulness predicts relationship satisfaction through perceived responsivity during a stressful conversation. Data blitz accepted for presentation at the 2016 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Diego, CA.

"My Mind" by Sophia D is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0