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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Feb;141(1):106-23. doi: 10.1037/a0024931. Epub 2011 Sep 12.

Mindfulness training affects attention--or is it attentional effort?

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Neurobiology Research Unit, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.


Improvements in attentional performance are at the core of proposed mechanisms for stress reduction in mindfulness meditation practices. However, this claim can be questioned because no previous studies have actively manipulated test effort in control groups and controlled for effects of stress reduction per se. In a blinded design, 48 young, healthy meditation novices were randomly assigned to a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), nonmindfulness stress reduction (NMSR), or inactive control group. At posttest, inactive controls were randomly split into nonincentive and incentive controls, the latter receiving a financial reward to improve attentional performance. Pre- and postintervention, 5 validated attention paradigms were employed along with self-report scales on mindfulness and perceived stress and saliva cortisol samples to measure physiological stress. Attentional effects of MBSR, NMSR, and the financial incentive were comparable or significantly larger in the incentive group on all reaction-time-based measures. However, selective attention in the MBSR group improved significantly more than in any other group. Similarly, only the MBSR intervention improved the threshold for conscious perception and visual working memory capacity. Furthermore, stress-reducing effects of MBSR were supported because those in the MBSR group showed significantly less perceived and physiological stress while increasing their mindfulness levels significantly. We argue that MBSR may contribute uniquely to attentional improvements but that further research focusing on non-reaction-time-based measures and outcomes less confounded by test effort is needed. Critically, our data demonstrate that previously observed improvements of attention after MBSR may be seriously confounded by test effort and nonmindfulness stress reduction.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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