Mechanisms Underlying Cognitive Effects of Inducing a Mindful State

Mindfulness is understood as a state or practice of guiding attention to the present moment without judgment. While some studies on mindfulness-based interventions demonstrate beneficial effects on cognitive functions (e.g. Chiesa et al., 2011; Yakobi et al., 2021) it still appears challenging to identify underlying mechanisms due to the wide range of research designs and dependent measures used, as well as the frequent absence of active control conditions. Relatedly, processes underlying the effects of short inductions of a mindful state may be unspecific to mindfulness and attainable through other means, such as relaxation (Fell et al., 2010). Therefore, the current study compared the effects of a brief mindfulness induction with a relaxation induction (via progressive muscle relaxation; active control condition) and listening to podcasts (passive control condition) in a pre-post experimental design. 78 participants without recent meditation experience were randomly assigned to the experimental conditions (mindfulness = 25; progressive muscle relaxation = 24; podcast listening = 30) and received corresponding instructions for a total of 40 minutes (2 × 20 minutes) a maximum of 3 days apart. Executive functions of inhibition, updating and switching as well as attentional networks were assessed with the continuous performance task, n-back task, number-letter task, and attention network task, respectively. While updating and executive attention similarly benefited from meditation and relaxation compared to podcast listening, inhibition and shifting measures indicate differential effects of mindfulness induction. Alerting and orienting were not affected by any induction. Implications for mechanisms underlying the effects of mindfulness are discussed.


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