In a recent post I introduced a theoretical paper on the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of mindfulness practice by Britta Hölzel and co-workers. Here I would like to offer a few more ideas that arose when reading this interesting paper.
The authors developed the presented model on theoretical grounds and – to a varying degree – underpin the components of the model with supporting empirical evidence. This evidence is treated in a rather coarse way, not distinguishing between different forms of meditation practice or interventions and also not between studies that show direct evidence and others that are more indirect. As the aim of the paper is to outline a theoretical model to be tested, rather than to make solid claims regarding the empirical support of every aspect of the model, this more general approach seems reasonable and acceptable. Furthermore, the presented model spells out some details that other discussions of the mechanisms underlying mindfulness practice have merely implied. It thus opens the doors to more rigorous testing of these mechanisms.
So, does this paper tell us how mindfulness meditation works? No, it does not! – But it also does not claim to do so. It rather provides a framework that may make it easier to position future research. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of considering various active components at the same time, rather than focusing on one particular detail.
The authors see the strength of their work in providing a model that considers mindfulness meditation practice as a process of enhanced self-regulation, consisting of the interplay of attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation (in form of reappraisal and extinction) and in a change of perspective regarding the self. While each of these components has previously been implicated in mindfulness practice, this model is the first to pull it all together in this way.
There is still much work to do and many questions are currently unanswered, for instance:
- The relevance of the different suggested components need to be determined empirically and their relationship and possible interactions needs to be defined. For instance, is body awareness a model component to be considered in its own right, or should it rather be understood as a specific type of attention training – focused attention on the body?
- The role of non-referential awareness, sometimes considered the pinnacle of mindfulness practice, does not yet feature strongly in this model.
- Different types of meditation need to be defined and distinguished more clearly, as it cannot be assumed that they all work in the same way or have the same effects.
- Active ingredients of comprehensive intervention programmes like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), need to be identified, before claims can be made that the mindfulness meditation that is part of these programmes is the deciding factor.
The list of questions could be much longer. But I will leave it at that.
So, this theoretical paper is a must read for everybody involved in meditation and mindfulness research. It gives some important impulses for future research and asks to be refined and developed further.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.
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