Current Research in Mindfulness Training
What is Mindfulness?
As taught in Buddhist psychology for over two millennia, the practice of mindfulness involves an attitude of openness, inquisitiveness, and acceptance of moment-to-moment experience.
A recent consensus definition of mindfulness emphasizes two complementary elements:
- The placement of attention on the immediate experience
- Adopting an open, curious, accepting attitude toward that experience.
Observe the Present
The premise of the practice is that by simply observing the present reality, a person is able to more clearly see how s/he habitually reacts to internal and external events as they arise. By clearly seeing, “space” is opened for greater perspective, and one is able to respond more intentionally to environmental stimuli rather than habitually reacting to them.
Mindfulness acquisition is classically evaluated by subjective self-report methodology, which is hard to measure. With the help of experienced meditators, we have recently begun mapping out the brain states that underlie different types of meditation, using fMRI. We are now extending these findings and bringing them together with first-person subjective self-reports using real-time fMRI neurofeedback and ecological momentary assessment tools.
Treating Substance Abuse and Craving
Over the past 30 years, mindfulness training has not only become much more popular in the western hemisphere, but has begun to show promise in a number of medical and psychological maladies from anxiety to psoriasis. More recently, it has begun to show that it can help people quit smoking and help with other substance use disorders.
We are currently evaluating mindfulness training both from neurobiological and treatment outcomes perspectives. Specifically, we are interested in the neural mechanisms of the mindfulness’ modulation of stress, and how this affects craving and use in drug-dependent populations (e.g. nicotine, alcohol, cocaine). We study these through various neurobiological and physiological techniques such as fMRI, skin conductance, and heart rate variability.