A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Measuring Mindfulness


Researchers ‘dismantle’ a common intervention to see how each component works.

As health interventions based on mindfulness have grown in popularity, some of the field’s leading researchers have become concerned that the evidence base for such practices is not yet robust enough. A new study shows how a rigorous approach to studying mindfulness-based interventions can help ensure that claims are backed by science.

One problem is that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) sometimes blend practices, which makes it difficult to measure how each of those practices affects participants. To address that issue, the researchers took a common intervention for mood disorders—mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)—and created a controlled study that isolated, or dismantled, its two main ingredients.

Those include open monitoring (OM)—noticing and acknowledging negative feelings without judgment or an emotional secondary reaction to them; and focused attention (FA)—maintaining focus on or shifting it toward a neutral sensation, such as breathing, to disengage from negative emotions or distractions.

“It has long been hypothesized that focused attention practice improves attentional control while open monitoring promotes emotional non-reactivity—two aspects of mindfulness thought to contribute its therapeutic effects,” says study lead and corresponding author Willoughby Britton, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior.

“However, because these two practices are almost always delivered in combination, it is difficult to assess their purported differential effects,” she says. “By creating separate, validated, single-ingredient training programs for each practice, the current project provides researchers with a tool to test the individual contributions of each component and mechanism to clinical endpoints.”

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