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Phenomenological fingerprints of four meditations: Differential state changes in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition and interoception before and after daily practice across nine months of training.


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Despite increasing interest in the effects of mental training practices such as meditation, there is much ambiguity regarding whether and to what extent the various types of mental practice have differential effects on psychological change. To address this gap, we compare the effects of four common meditation practices on measures of state change in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition, and interoception. In the context of a 9-month mental training program called the ReSource Project, 229 mid-life adults (mean age 41) provided daily reports before and after meditation practice. Participants received training in the following three successive modules: the first module (presence) included breathing meditation and body scan, the second (affect) included loving-kindness meditation, and the third (perspective) included observing-thought meditation. Using multilevel modeling, we found that body scan led to the greatest state increase in interoceptive awareness and the greatest decrease in thought content, loving-kindness meditation led to the greatest increase in feelings of warmth and positive thoughts about others, and observing-thought meditation led to the greatest increase in meta-cognitive awareness. All practices, including breathing meditation, increased positivity of affect, energy, and present focus and decreased thought distraction. Complementary network analysis of intervariate relationships revealed distinct phenomenological clusters of psychological change congruent with the content of each practice. These findings together suggest that although different meditation practices may have common beneficial effects, each practice can also be characterized by a distinct short-term psychological fingerprint, the latter having important implications for the use of meditative practices in different intervention contexts and with different populations.
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Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential
State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition,
and Interoception Before and After Daily
Practice Across 9 Months of Training
Bethany E. Kok
&Tani a S i n g e r
Published online: 19 August 2016
#The Author(s) 2016. This article is published with open access at
Abstract Despite increasing interest in the effects of mental
training practices such as meditation, there is much ambiguity
regarding whether and to what extent the various types of
mental practice have differential effects on psychological
change. To address this gap, we compare the effects of four
common meditation practices on measures of state change in
affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition, and interoception. In
the context of a 9-month mental training program called the
ReSource Project, 229 mid-life adults (mean age 41) provided
daily reports before and after meditation practice. Participants
received training in the following three successive modules:
the first module (presence) included breathing meditation and
body scan, the second (affect) included loving-kindness med-
itation, and the third (perspective) included observing-thought
meditation. Using multilevel modeling, we found that body
scan led to the greatest state increase in interoceptive aware-
ness and the greatest decrease in thought content, loving-
kindness meditation led to the greatest increase in feelings of
warmth and positive thoughts about others, and observing-
thought meditation led to the greatest increase in meta-
cognitive awareness. All practices, including breathing medi-
tation, increased positivity of affect, energy, and present focus
and decreased thought distraction. Complementary network
analysis of intervariate relationships revealed distinct
phenomenological clusters of psychological change congru-
ent with the content of each practice. These findings together
suggest that although different meditation practices may have
common beneficial effects, each practice can also be charac-
terized by a distinct short-term psychological fingerprint, the
latter having important implications for the use of meditative
practices in different intervention contexts and with different
Keywords Meditation .Meta-cognitive awareness .
Decentering .Interoception .Affect .Multilevel modeling
In recent years, the potential effects of mental training on
well-being, brain, health, and behavior have become a fo-
cus of both popular and scientific interest. A wide variety
of training programs now exist that offer secularized med-
itation training, comprised of standardized protocols with
instructioninavarietyofcontemplative practices (Kabat-
Zinn 1990), often in combination with other forms of men-
tal training such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (Fjorback
et al. 2011). Mental training has promise, both as a poten-
tial treatment for mental disorders from schizophrenia
(Johnson et al. 2011) to PTSD (Lang et al. 2012)todepres-
sion and anxiety (Strauss et al. 2014), among others, and as
a method for improving quality of life in individuals not
diagnosed with a disorder (Chiesa and Serretti 2009).
Initial research on the benefits of secularized meditation
programs rested on comparisons to passive control groups
or on comparing pre-meditation and post-meditation ef-
fects in the same participants with no control (Ospina
et al. 2008). Such studies found significant effects on
physical and mental health, attention, stress reduction,
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article
(doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9) contains supplementary material,
which is available to authorized users.
*Bethany E. Kok
Department of Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human
Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Stephanstraße 1A,
04103 Leipzig, Germany
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231
DOI 10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9
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and even brain activity (Chiesa and Serretti 2010). Other
studies focused on defining the subjective experience, or
phenomenology, of meditation, sometimes linking phe-
nomenological measures to objective indices of neural or
physiological activity (Lutz and Thompson 2003).
Meditation, like sports, refers to many different types of
activities that can vary greatly in content, focus, effort, com-
plexity, and duration. Widely studied secular mental training
programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) combine
many different mental practices, making it impossible to iso-
late the effects of any one specific practice (Kabat-Zinn 1990;
Williams et al. 2014). Furthermore, meditation is commonly
performed in a specific context which can have effects inde-
pendent of practice content. When meditative practices are
compared to active control groups rather than waitlist controls
or pre-post comparisons without a control group, findings of
specific effects for meditation often become smaller and more
bounded (Feldman et al. 2010;Kuykenetal.2015;MacCoon
et al. 2012; Obasi et al. 2013). Similarly, due to the intensive
measurement requirements of phenomenological research, the
vast majority of phenomenological studies focus only on the
phenomenological space of one meditative practice, without
direct comparison to others (for an exception, see
Louchakova-Schwartz (2013)).
Four commonly studied meditative practices are breathing
meditation, body scan, loving-kindness meditation, and
observing-thought meditation. These practices are drawn
mostly from the Buddhist contemplative traditions, although
many other traditions employ similar exercises. Focusing on
the breath is a meditation aimed at stabilizing attention and the
mind; practitioners learn to direct attention to the breath in an
intentional way, to monitor the direction of attention and de-
tect when the mind wanders, and to return attention to the
breath when mind-wandering is detected. As the practice
teaches stable attention, an ability required for meditation, it
is often taught to beginners yet remains central to the practices
of many experienced meditators (Hart 1987;Sakyong2003).
In their review of the literature, Lutz et al. (2008) categorized
focus on breath as a type of focused attention meditation and
linked it to changes in attentional processing. For example,
after practicing attentional focus meditation, experienced
Tibetan Buddhist monks were able to perceive, as one stable
percept, two dissimilar images presented to separate eyes; this
effect did not occur after the same monks practiced compas-
sion meditation (Carter et al. 2005).
The practice of body scan involves extending awareness to
each individual part of the body in turn, typically starting at
the head (Kabat-Zinn 1990). Practitioners focus on directing
their attention exclusively toward the targeted body part and
observing the sensations in that part. Body scan is an element
of MBSR and is another kind of focused attention meditation,
this time using different parts of the body as attentional
objects. Body scan practice, in combination with focusing
on the breath, improves interoceptive sensitivity and accuracy
and also trains attentional control, as the meditator constantly
monitors the object of attention and returns attention to the
targeted body part if the mind wanders (Mirams et al. 2013).
Loving-kindness meditation is a practice that focuses on
the cultivation of benevolence, love, and care toward others
and the self (Salzberg 2005). Participants strengthen feelings
of warmth and care through the visualization of a close loved
person. Participants sequentially extend these feelings toward
themselves, a close person, a neutral person, a person whom
they dislike or have difficulties with, and finally toward
strangers and human beings in general. Longitudinal studies
comparing 8 weeks of loving-kindness meditation to a waitlist
control have found that meditators increase in trait positive
emotions (Fredrickson et al. 2008; Kok et al. 2013) and feel-
ings of closeness to others (Kok et al. 2013) but do not change
in negative emotions. There is also evidence that loving-
kindness meditation induces neurological and physiological
changes; 1 week of training in combined loving-kindness
meditation and compassion increased neural activity in net-
works associated with positive affect and affiliation, relative to
an active memory control group (Klimecki et al. 2013,2014;
Singer and Klimecki 2014).
Observing-thought meditation teaches Bdecentering,^a
meta-cognitive process allowing thoughts to arise and fall
without identifying with or becoming absorbed in their con-
tent or emotions. Learning to observe thoughts is an element
of mindfulness meditation and is taught in courses including
MBSR and MBCT (Fjorback and Walach 2012). Observing-
thought meditation training cultivates meta-cognitive aware-
ness of thoughts via two different meta-cognitive skills, taught
sequentially. First, participants learned to categorize upcom-
ing thoughts with labels such as Bpast,^Bfuture,^Bpositive^
or Bnegative,^and Bself^or Bother.^Then, participants
learned to observe thoughts coming and going without
reacting or engaging with the thoughts. Results of a recent
empirical study suggest that training in observing-thought
meditation has cognitive effects; compared to both body scan
and mindful yoga, the observing-thought meditation practice
of Bsitting meditation^was associated with the greatest im-
provement in non-judging of thoughts (Sauer-Zavala et al.
2013). The opposite of decentering, persistent identification
and enmeshment with thoughts, is known as rumination and is
associated with a variety of negative mental health outcomes
(Olatunji et al. 2013). Mindfulness meditation including an
observing-thought component effectively reduced rumination
relative to both relaxation training and measurement control
groups (Jain et al. 2007).
These four meditative practices appear to have psycholog-
ical and physiological effectswhencomparedtowaitlist
control groups or to active non-meditative controls. There
are also hints of practice-specific effects for breathing
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231 219
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meditation and observing thoughts, compared to other med-
itative practices. Overall, however, while these four medi-
tative practices have distinct conceptual bases and appear in
theoretical work as distinct practices, there is no empirical
evidence to directly differentiate them.
This study systematically investigates the common and dif-
ferential state effects of these four meditation practices across
dimensions of subjective experience commonly targeted by
meditation, affect, mind-wandering, content of thoughts, and
meta-cognitive and body awareness. Body scan and breathing
meditation should most effectively increase feelings of presence
and body awareness and decrease distraction by thoughts.
Loving-kindness meditation should most effectively increase
positivity of affect and feelings of warmth, as well as positive
and other-focused thoughts. Finally, observing-thought medita-
tion should not change the content of thought or decrease the
amount of thoughts but should most effectively increase meta-
cognitive awareness of thought contents and processes and de-
crease distraction by thoughts. In addition, we hypothesize that
loving kindness will be more effective after 3 months of body
scan and breathing practice. We also conducted exploratory
network analyses of the interrelationships among the various
outcome measures (Borsboom and Cramer 2013).
Participants were recruited through flyers, radio and newspa-
per advertisements, and local news coverage in two major
German cities. Potential participants attended one of multiple
evening information sessions offered by the principal investi-
gator (Singer), then indicated their interest in participating via
a website. Potential participants were then sent a battery of
screening questionnaires designed to identify individuals from
vulnerable populations (underage, pregnant or nursing, suffer-
ing from mental or physical illness), individuals who would be
unable to complete the behavioral or neurological measure-
ment portions of the study, and individuals with previous med-
itation experience, all of whom were excluded from the pres-
ent study. More details concerning participant recruitment,
screening, and demographics in the ReSource Project are
available in the online Supplementary material.
The sample at start of data collection included 80 participants
in training cohort 1 (TC1), 81 participants in training cohort 2
training cohorts did not differ significantly in gender, age, or
personality/mental health as assessed by a wide range of trait
measures (listed in Singer et al. (2016), Appendix C2). Of the
initial sample, 13 did not complete any meditation sessions using
the online platform, thus providing no meditation data. Analyses
are based on the following groups: TC1 78 participants, 58 %
female, mean age 41.4 (minimum age = 20, maximum age = 55);
TC2 78 participants, 59 % female, mean age 41.3 (minimum
age = 21, maximum age = 55); and TC3 73 participants, 60 %
female, mean age 40.7 (minimum age = 21, maximum age = 55).
Additionally, by the start of the second module (affect for TC1,
perspective for TC2), one participant provided no meditation
data in TC1 and three provided no meditation data in of TC2.
By the start of the third module (perspective for TC1, affect for
TC2), four additional participants ceased to provide meditation
data in TC1 and two participants ceased to provide meditation
data in TC2. The total participant-level meditation data loss rate
by the last module completed was thus 8.75 % for TC1, 10 % for
Four different meditation practices were taught as part of the
ReSource Project, a module-based 9-month secularized mental
training program (Singer et al. 2016). The practices, different in
content and goals, are matched in training context (e.g., length of
retreats, amount of practice each week, length and structure of
weekly group sessions, and a shared pool of teacher practi-
tioners). As with most recent meditation research performed in
the West, the training has been secularized. The first module,
called presence, teaches two core practices; Bbreathing
meditation^and Bbody scan^cultivate attention and interoceptive
awareness. The second module, called affect, teaches Bloving-
kindness^meditation, with the purpose of creating positive,
other-focused mental states and prosocial motivation. The third
module, called perspective, teaches Bobserving-thought^medita-
tion, in order to learn to identify and detach from the contents of
thought and decrease reactivity to mental events. The affect and
perspective modules also include near-daily dyadic meditations,
the effects of which are discussed elsewhere (Kok and Singer,
Contemplating the Other: Introducing the Contemplative Dyad
and its effects on social closeness, motivation and personal dis-
closure over six months of mental training via a randomized
clinical trial, under review). Participants underwent the same
number of hours in retreats and teacher-led meditation training
for all three modules. Teaching was conducted in teams to avoid
confounding content with a particular teacher, although it was not
possible to fully counterbalance teachers across practices to
completely eliminate the potential effects of particularly effective
teachers (Ospina et al. 2007). Each of the three modules of the
ReSource Project serves as an active control for the other mod-
ules, allowing the assessment of practice-specific effects.
To explore sequence effects on training and create active
control groups, participants were divided into three training
cohorts, each of which experienced the modules in a different
order. Training cohorts 1 and 2 began the study with a 3-day
retreat led by experienced meditation teachers, where they
started training breathing meditation and body scan (details
about the retreats and content of the training program have
220 Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231
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been published in Singer et al. 2016). At the retreat, partici-
pants were also introduced to the ReSource data collection
website, including guided meditation recordings and a series
of online questions to be answered before and after meditat-
ing. For the next 13 weeks, participants were asked to practice
breathing meditation for a minimum of 5 days a week and to
conduct a body scan for a minimum of 5 days a week, using
the guided meditation recordings and completing the pre-
meditation and post-meditation questions before and after
each practice. Guided meditations were available in 20-min
(body scan) and 10-min (breathing meditation) lengths. In
addition, participants attended weekly 2-h sessions with med-
itation teachers from the retreat.
After 13 weeks of presence training (see also Fig. 1), par-
ticipants in TC1 began 13 weeks of affect training in loving-
kindness meditation and an emotion-focused dyadic exercise,
starting with a 3-day retreat. Participants in TC2 began
13 weeks of perspective training in observing-thought medi-
tation and a perspective-taking dyadic exercise, also starting
with a 3-day retreat. For reasons of different format and con-
tent, the effects of the dyadic exercises will not be addressed
here. As before, participants were asked to practice their core
meditation (loving-kindness meditation for TC1 and
observing-thought meditation for TC2) at least 5 days a week
(in addition to a 2-h teacher-led group session each week),
using guided meditation recordings available on the study
website, and to complete the online questionnaire before and
after practice. Participants also continued to attend their 2-h
long weekly training sessions with meditation teachers, focus-
ing on the new practice.
After the second 13-week training module was completed,
participants in TC1 were assigned to the perspective module
and participants in TC2 were assigned to the affect module,
following the same pattern of retreat, meditation and dyadic
activities, daily training and assessment, and weekly meetings
described previously (see Fig. 1). Aside from the
counterbalanced order of the affect and perspective modules
and inevitable variations in season due to the staggered start
times of the two training cohorts, participantsexperiences
were intended to be identical across TC1 and TC2; all partic-
ipants in both cohorts experienced the exact same combina-
tion of the same meditation practices taught by the same group
of teachers, listened to the same text recorded on the medita-
tion platform, and answered the same questions before and
after daily practice.
Training cohort 3 attended a 3-day retreat structured
similarly to the affect retreat for TC1 and TC2, where
they were introduced to all core exercises of the affect
module including loving-kindness meditation, and to the
ReSource data collection website. Their practice expecta-
tions and assessment schedule were identical to TC1 and
TC2, with the exception that they only practiced for one
13-week period.
At the end of the final 13-week period, training and assess-
ment ended for all participants in all cohorts, although partic-
ipants were still able to use the online meditation recordings
and complete the questionnaires if they wished. Follow-up
assessments were completed 4 and 10 months after the end
of training. The results of those assessments will not be
discussed here.
The ReSource Project involved a wide range of assessments,
with a full list available in Singer et al. (2016). Here, we
analyze changes measured by a battery of quantitative pre-
meditation and post-meditation questions.
In order to reduce demands on the participantstime, ques-
tions were divided into four blocks, with two question blocks
administered each day (see Fig. 1; note that the Bopen
response^free-writing block is not shown in the figure).
One block of questions (Bfeeling states^) was administered
every day, while the others were presented in counterbalanced
order across the weeks. The same question was asked before
the meditation began and after it ended. Unless otherwise
noted, answers were given using a continuous slider ranging
from 0 (Bnot at all^)to19(Bvery much^).
The first question group was comprised of eight items, the
six questions of the cube of thought, which assess the contents
of thought, and two questions concerning attitude toward
thoughts (Ruby et al. 2013). Participants indicated the extent
that their thoughts were about the future, the past, the self, and
others and how positive and negative these thoughts were.
Participants then reported how much they had judged the
thoughts (considering some thoughts good and some bad,
for example) and how sure they were that they had accurate-
ly reported the content of their thoughts. These final two
questions (Bjudging thoughts^and Bsureness^)werenotan-
alyzed due to participant reports that those questions were
difficult to understand. The pre-meditation questions con-
cerned thoughts from the 30 min previous to answering the
questions. The post-meditation questions concerned thoughts
during the meditation.
The second question block assessed meta-cognition.
Participants indicated the extent that in the 30 min before
meditating (pre) and during the meditation (post), they felt
Bdistracted by thoughts,^Boccupied by thoughts,^and that
their mind was Bbusy^with thoughts. Participants also indi-
cated how aware they were of having thoughts and how aware
they felt of the contents of their thoughts. The three questions
concerning distraction (distracted, occupied, busy) were aver-
aged to create a Bthought distraction^score (mean daily α=
0.87, SD = 0.03). The two questions concerning thought
awareness and thought content were averaged to create a
Bthought awareness^score (mean daily α=0.77,SD =0.06).
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231 221
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The third question block was comprised of 2 min of free-
writing before and after the meditation, where participants
were asked to record their thoughts and feelings as they oc-
curred during the 2-min period. Analyses of these data are not
yet complete.
The questions that were asked every day assessed affect,
present-focused awareness, and interoception. They included
an affect grid where participants reported valence and arousal
just before and just after meditating, using a scale from 0 to 8
for each dimension (Russell et al. 1989). Participants also
reported how warm they felt, how present they felt, and how
aware of their body they felt.
In total, participants who followed the instructions to prac-
tice the core meditations 5 days a week would have completed
each of the three question groups 20 times per 3-month period
and completed the fourth daily group 60 times per 3-month
period. Ultimately, we recorded approximately 66,390 mea-
surement points representing over 11,000 h of meditation.
Data Analyses
To test for within-person training effects, a three-level hierar-
chical linear model was fitted using the nlme package in R for
each variable. Data was structured into measurement days
(level 1), nested within practices (level 2), and nested within
persons (level 3); comparisons between practices occur at lev-
el 2 and are within-person. Daily measurements were provid-
ed in groups of two, one before the meditation and one after-
ward. Tests of random effects (available in the online
Supplementary material) revealed that, for all variables in
TC1 and TC2, a three-level model was a better fit to the data
than either a simple linear model or a two-level hierarchical
linear model.
Each model included predictors representing type of med-
itation practice (practice, a categorical variable with four
levels), whether the measurement took place before or after
practice (post), and their interaction. State effects of practice
Fig. 1 Study design, timeline, and day-to-day meditation measures. A
fourth question block requesting that participants free-write about their
mental state was also included in the design but is not discussed here.
Section Aadapted with permission from Singer et al. (2016), p. 36,
Figure 4.1, with the timelines for control groups and long-term follow-
ups removed
222 Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231
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were not moderated by a linear effect for the passage of time,
and thus, the interactions of time with post and practice are not
included in the final models described here; tests of the effect
of time on the magnitude of state change are available in the
Supplemental material. Details concerning the selection and
coding of person-level and day-level covariates (including
time), selection of random effects, contrast coding, the final
model equations, and other model-specific information are
available in the Supplementary material.
To test for between-person sequence effects, we fitted a
two-level hierarchical linear model with time nested with-
in participant for each variable. Each model included pre-
dictors representing training cohort (training cohort,a
categorical variable with three levels), whether the mea-
surement took place after practice (post), and their inter-
action. Details concerning the selection and coding of
person-level and day-level covariates (including time), se-
lection of random effects, contrast coding, the final model
equations, and other model-specific information are avail-
able in the Supplementary material.
To explore potential changes in intervariate relationships,
we utilized network analysis, a technique for graphically ex-
ploring relationships between multiple variables (Borsboom
and Cramer 2013). Additional details are provided in the
Supplementary material.
Participants were asked to practice the core meditation(s) of
the current module at least five times per week, in addition to
the weekly training session. Mean weekly meditation frequen-
cies are shown in Table 1. For a detailed multilevel analysis of
compliance rates by group and practice type over time, see
section 10.2 of Singer et al. (2016). In general, compliance
rates were higher for the presence module than for the other
two modules.
Within-Person Analyses
Tab le 2provides the pvalues for the omnibus Ftests,
change estimates for each practice, and the contrasts
among the practices as appropriate. Individual practice
changes are also shown in Fig. 2. Information on the
degrees of freedom, Fvalues, and significance tests for
all predictors are included in the Supplemental material.
Models were also run without covariates (age, gender,
media, time, weekend, Christmas), and the results showed
a highly similar pattern of significance. These analyses are
also included in the Supplemental material.
The presence of two cohorts undergoing the same training
program at different times means that TC2 can be interpreted
as a replication of TC1. In light of this, correction for multiple
testing was not used, but only statistically significant changes
and practice differences that are shared across both cohorts
will be interpreted.
While practicing breathing meditation did significantly in-
crease present focus, this change was not greater than for the
other three meditation types. Body awareness also increased
significantly after breathing meditation practice but no more
so than after loving-kindness meditation and observing-
thought meditation and less than after bodyscan. Finally, there
was a statistically significant decrease in the amount of
thoughts encompassing three of the six descriptors of thought
content (future, others, negative), and no significant increases
in the amount of thought types for the other three thought
content descriptors, indicating an overall decrease in thought
quantity during breath-focused meditation.
As shown in Fig. 3, the phenomenological space for
breathing meditation was defined by two clusters, one
comprised of meta-cognition, interoceptive awareness,
and present-moment focus and the other linking thoughts
of others to future-oriented, non-self-focused thoughts.
Body scan showed the highest increase in body awareness
of all practices studied; present focus also increased but no
more than for other practices. Body scan was also associated
with a statistically significant decrease in the amount of
thoughts encompassing four of the six descriptors of thought
content (future, past, others, negative), and no significant in-
creases in the amount of thoughts for the other two descriptors
of thought content, indicating an overall decrease in thought
quantity during body scan meditation.
Consistent with similarities in training and goals for the
two practices, the phenomenological space for body scan
is very similar to that of breathing meditation, two clus-
ters, one characterized by links between present focus,
body awareness, thought awareness, and distraction by
thoughts and one representing the structure of non-task-
related thought (mind-wandering).
As anticipated, during loving-kindness meditation, partici-
pants reported the greatest increase in positively valenced
Tabl e 1 Number of meditation sessions per person per week
Meditation TC1 TC2 TC3
Mean SD Mean SD
Breathing 4.89 1.19 4.52 1.25
Body scan 4.38 1.20 4.34 1.24
Loving kindness 3.89 1.14 3.38 1.30 4.05 1.57
Observing thoughts 3.57 1.22 3.69 1.24
SD represents the between-person variance in mean compliance
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231 223
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thoughts and in fact, were the only group to show statistically
significant positive change in that variable. Regarding other-
focused thoughts, loving-kindness meditation again had the
greatest increase in other-focused thoughts relative to the other
groups, but this positive change was only significant for TC2.
In TC1, this difference was mainly due to large decreases in
other-focused thought in breathing meditation and body scan.
Contrary to our hypothesis, while loving-kindness meditation
was related to increases in subjective warmth, these changes
were no greater than the warmth changes that occurred during
the breathing and observing-thought meditations, although
they were higher than the change that occurred in body scan.
Finally, all four practices demonstrated statistically significant
increases in positivity of affect, but the increase associated
with loving-kindness meditation was not reliably larger than
in the other practices as had been hypothesized.
In loving-kindness meditation, changes in the phenomeno-
logical space are divided into three clusters. Awareness of
thoughts and thought distraction are now distinct from aware-
ness of the body and the present moment, the latter now
linking to feelings of warmth. Finally, the thought content
cluster is consistent with the goal of loving-kindness
Tabl e 2 Hierarchical linear model-derived state change estimates by training cohort
Characteristic Training cohort 1 Training cohort 2
Breathing Body
pvalue Breathing Body
Future 1.20
2.32 1.44
0.18 0 1.49
0.28 0
Past 0.43 0.90
0.66 00.20 0.81
0.45 0
Self 0.09
0.66 0.00
Others 1.76 2.90 0.29 0.34 0 1.96 2.64 0.65 0.45 0
Positive 0.44
0.58 0.20
1.03 0.06
Negative 0.76 1.16
0.34 00.64 1.12 1.57 0.25 0
Affect 0.44
0.30 00.50
0.65 0.51
Energy 0.36
0.77 0.42
War m th 0.56
Present 1.74
0.4 1.71
Body aware 1.49
2.34 1.37
2.34 1.47
Distraction 1.08
2.00 1.46
0.17 0.44
1.47 00.56
0.01 0.71
1.25 0
Change estimates significantly different from zero (p<0.05) are indicated in ital. For each row within each training cohort, values sharing a superscript
are not significantly different from one another (p0.05)
Fig. 2 Estimates and 95 %
confidence intervals for model-
derived state changes in the four
mental training practices of
training cohorts 1 and 2
224 Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231
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meditation linking positive thoughts to self- and other-
oriented thoughts and negatively to a cluster of negatively
valenced, past-related thoughts.
As anticipated, observing-thought meditation led to the
largest statistically significant increase in thought aware-
ness of all four practices. Observing thoughts also signif-
icantly decreased distraction by thoughts; however, this
change was not statistically different from the change in
thought distraction caused by breathing meditation or
loving-kindness meditation. In TC1, body scan practice
than observing-thought meditation.
Observing thoughts led to four small, narrowly defined
clusters. One cluster now relates affect and energy; the second
past-negative thoughts; the third future-other related thoughts;
and the last, similar to loving-kindness meditation, links body
awareness, present focus, and warmth.
All four practices showed significant increases in posi-
tivity of affect, present focus, ability to avoid being distract-
ed by thoughts, energy, and body awareness. BSelflessness^
is an additional pursuit often associated with meditation.
However, in both TC1 and TC2, there was no significant
change in the amount of self-related thoughts for any of the
four practices.
Between-Person Analyses
Figure 4shows the differences between the training cohorts in
the effects of loving-kindness meditation, reflecting a signifi-
cant effect for interaction of group and practice. Information
on the significance tests for all coefficients is included in the
Supplemental material. Models were also run without covar-
iates (age,gender,media,time,weekend), and the results
showed a highly similar pattern of significance. These analy-
ses are also included in the Supplemental material.
For the majority of variables, there was no difference be-
tween groups in the amount of change occurring due to
loving-kindness meditation. Critically, even in the absence
of 3 months of attention training, loving-kindness meditation
still increased present focus, body awareness, thought aware-
ness, and ability to disengage from distracting thoughts just as
much as in other training cohorts, despite the fact that these
changes are more closely associated with presence training
than with loving-kindness meditation.
Fig. 3 Partial correlation
structures for each mental training
practice combined across TC1
and TC2. Amount of change is
represented by relative circle size
and corresponds to the estimates
in Table 2. Paths between circles
represent the significant partial
correlations, with solid lines
representing positive and
dashed lines representing
negative correlations. Variables
without significant correlations
are not shown
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231 225
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Some unanticipated differences between cohorts did ap-
pear. Participants who did not receive preparatory presence
training, but did the affect module immediately, showed a
significantly smaller decrease in negative thoughts during
meditation compared to the other groups. These participants
also showed the highest increase in positivity of affect and the
greatest increase in subjective warmth.
The pattern of intervariate relationships for loving-
kindness meditation without the presence module (shown in
Fig. 5) differed somewhat from the pattern for loving-
kindness meditation with presence training. While thoughts
of others were still associated with positively valenced
thoughts and decreased negatively valenced thoughts, the re-
lationship between thought awareness and present-focus was
different. In the original two cohorts, there was no link
between thought awareness and present focus in loving-
kindness meditation, although they were positively linked
in body scan and breathing meditations. Here, they are
negatively linked through changes in energy, suggesting that
in the absence of presence training, participants found it diffi-
cult to sustain awareness of their thoughts and the present
moment simultaneously.
The purpose of the present work was to compare the differen-
tial psychological effects of daily practice of four different
types of meditation included in the Resource Project, a 9-
month long longitudinal study of mental training (Singer
et al. 2016). We specifically focused on identifying patterns
of training-related change in experienced affect, thought con-
tent, meta-cognition, and body awareness. Training consisted
of three 13-week modules (presence, affect, perspective), each
comprised of two core practices that targeted attentional,
socio-affective, and socio-cognitive functions, respectively.
Two of the core practices were dyadic in nature, and their
effects will be discussed elsewhere. The other four were
Fig. 4 Model-derived state
change estimates for loving-
kindness meditation for training
cohorts 1, 2, and 3. The error bars
represent the person-level
standard errors. The stars
represent change significantly
different from zero
226 Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231
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single-person meditations, breathing meditation and body
scan (presence), loving-kindness meditation (affect), and
observing-thought meditation (perspective). Training modules
were matched in the time required, the learning environment,
the structure and length of retreats, the frequency of practice,
the availability of support through the online platform and a
smartphone app, and teacher investment. We expected differ-
ential effects of these types of mental practices on subjective
outcome measures assessed before and after daily practice of a
given meditation.
As hypothesized, each of the four mental practices showed
unique Bmental fingerprints^of change. These fingerprints
were expressed as differential training-related effects on self-
reported measures of affect, cognition, and body and meta-
cognitive awareness, as well as differences in the structure
of the relationships among variables as illustrated by the net-
work analyses.
Specifically, breathing meditation, trained during the pres-
ence module, decreased the overall number of thoughts and
the tendency to be distracted by thoughts and increased pres-
ent focus, interoceptive awareness, positivity of affect,
warmth, and energy. The fingerprint of body scan, also trained
during the presence module, was similar to that of breathing
meditation. Participants decreased in overall number of
thoughts and the tendency to be distracted by thoughts and
increased present focus, positivity of affect, and energy. Body
scan led to the highest increase in body awareness of all four
practices. Network analyses of breathing meditation and body
scan revealed two main clusters, the first linking awareness of
thought and distraction by thoughts to body awareness and
present focus and the second linking increased thoughts about
others and thoughts about the future to decreased thoughts
about the self. This suggests that participants may have used
body focus and present-moment focus asa way of coping with
distraction by thoughts. Such a strategy is congruent with the
training goal to increase awareness of all present-moment ex-
perience, including bodily sensations and thoughts. The sec-
ond cluster could be interpreted as Bmind-wandering,^as at-
tention is diverted from the self (and the breathing or bodily
sensations that are the target of the meditations) toward others
and potential future or past events.
Loving-kindness meditation led to expected increases
in positively valenced thoughts, a change not observed for
the other three practices. Other-focused thoughts also in-
creased relative to the other practices, but only training
cohort 1 showed a statistically significant absolute in-
crease in other-focused thought. Feelings of subjective
warmth and positivity of affect also increased but no more
than for the other practices. As with all other practices,
participants also increased present focus, interoceptive
awareness, and energy. This mental pattern maintained
both for loving-kindness meditation learned in sequence
with other modules and loving-kindness meditation taught
without other modules. Loving-kindness meditation without
other modules, however, was more effective at enhancing
warmth and positivity of affect.
Follow-up network analyses further differentiated loving-
kindness meditation from other practices. Changes in meta-
cognition were uncoupled from changes in interoceptive
awareness and present focus, suggesting a shift from cultivat-
ing general attention to domain-specific attention.
Furthermore, body awareness and present focus were not only
positively related to each other but also to warmth. Finally,
positively valenced thoughts were related to thinking about
self and others, and this thought pattern was negatively asso-
ciated with negatively valenced, past-focused thoughts. This
last Bthought cluster^is consistent with the instructions of
loving-kindness meditation to visualize loved others and ex-
tend good wishes of loving kindness and happiness to them
(Salzberg 1995). It further suggests that the more participants
think positive thoughts of self and others, the more ruminative
thoughts (negative and past-focused) are suppressed.
Interestingly, the uncoupling of meta-cognition and
interoception in loving-kindness meditation occurred only
when loving-kindness meditation was taught after the pres-
ence or perspective modules. When the affect module was
taught in isolation, meta-cognition and interoception were
positively associated, suggesting that this dissociation is not
inherent to loving-kindness meditation but may result from
approaching loving-kindness meditation with already
established meditation skills.
Fig. 5 Partial correlation structures for each TC3. Amount of change is
represented by relative circle size. Paths between circles represent the
significant partial correlations, with solid lines representing positive and
dashed lines representing negative correlations. Variables without
significant correlations are not shown
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231 227
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Finally, observing-thought meditation, trained during the
perspective module, led as expected to the highest increase
in meta-cognitive awareness of thoughts. Participants were
also less distracted by thoughts but no more so than for other
practices. The goal of observing-thought meditation is to re-
fine the ability to categorize and observe thoughts without
reacting, as well as to cultivate awareness of the thought pro-
cess. This is manifest in the network analysis of many small,
separate clusters of conceptually linked variables, indicating a
nuanced approach to thoughts similar to what is trained in
MBCT (Fjorback et al. 2011; Strauss et al. 2014; Williams
et al. 2014). The cluster of affect and energy represent the
participants subjective state, while the past/negative cluster
may reflect a common ruminative pattern and the future/
other cluster has been linked to planning (Ruby et al. 2013).
The body awareness and present-focus cluster is also concep-
tually consistent, although the inclusion of warmth is unex-
pected. Finally, thought awareness and thought distraction are
uncoupled in observing-thought meditation, suggesting that
participants become more proficient in distinguishing between
meta-cognitive awareness of thoughts and being distracted by
thoughts. As for the other practices, participantsalso increased
in present focus, interoceptive awareness, positivity of affect,
warmth, and energy. Interestingly, no practice significantly
changed the amount of self-related thought experienced by
In summary, the following effects uniquely defined each of
the four core meditative practices: body scan led to the greatest
increase in interoceptive awareness, loving-kindness medita-
tion was best in increasing positively valenced and other-
focused thought and was the only practice to positively link
thoughts of self and others, and observing-thought meditation
was most effective in increasing meta-cognitive awareness of
thoughts and resulted in the highest number of distinguishable
thought-content clusters. There were no unique effects for
breathing meditation, which is used as a basic practice in
many contemplative traditions.
The fingerprints observed for the meditative practices, both
in individual variable changes and in distinct networks of relat-
ed intervariate change, provide validation for the idea that the
type of meditation matters. The choice of what type of medita-
tion to engage in, or what to focus on within a particular type of
meditation, has experiential consequences. Other studies have
shown that repeated subjective experiences such as anxiety
(Kubzansky et al. 2006) or positive affect (Fredrickson et al.
2008;Koketal.2013) can have significant and far-reaching
consequences for life, health, and longevity. In such a context,
meditation may prove a critical tool in helping to Bshift^the
tone of subjective experiences away from those known to be
noxious and toward more salubrious states.
Our findings have a number of every day and clinical im-
plications. By demonstrating distinct subjective Bfingerprints^
for four types of meditation taught in a shared context and
assessed using a shared question pool, we provide clear evi-
dence that some forms of meditation may be better suited to
certain professions or patient populations than others. The
fingerprints revealed here may help practitioners to choose a
meditative practice that is the best Bmatch^for the current
needs of their client. In addition, the overlapping effects
shared between practices also suggest that in some cases, the
choice of meditation can be guided by individual preference
without compromising the efficacy of the chosen practice.
Our findings also have implications for researchers who
may wish to study the effects of repeated subjective experi-
ences. Challenges in such research include attempting to
reliably and regularly induce the desired subjective experi-
ence and finding an effective matched control. Additional
analyses, reported in the Supplemental material, suggest
that the magnitude of change is relatively consistent over
time, indicating a lack of habituation. Furthermore, since
the state effects of breathing meditation appear to be a sub-
set of the effects found in the other three practices, pairing
breathing meditation with body scan, loving-kindness med-
itation, or observing-thought meditation would allow the
researcher to observe the long-term effects of repeatedly
experiencing interoceptive awareness, positive other focus,
or meta-cognitive awareness, respectively.
While practice-specific hypotheses were mostly confirmed
for breathing meditation, body scan, loving-kindness medita-
tion, and observing-thought meditation, there was also a sub-
stantial amount of un-hypothesized overlap between the dif-
ferent meditations. All practices left participants feeling hap-
pier, more energized, more present in the moment, more aware
of their bodies, and better able to disengage from distracting
Some of the shared or overlapping effects may be attributed
to continuing practice in directing, re-focusing, and sustaining
attention to a given object in the present moment, be it the
breath, parts of the body, a mental image, or a mental event
like a thought. Learning to focus attention and stay in the
present moment, detect when attention has wandered, and
return attention to the original target are fundamental to all
contemplative practices (Kabat-Zinn 1990), and a muscle is
exercised by all four mental training exercises studied here.
The analogy may be to a runner learning the geography of a
city; depending on where the runner goes, she will learn about
a different neighborhood, but no matter where she runs, her
muscular and cardiovascular system will show a similar pat-
tern of development over time. In the same way, different
meditative practices can simultaneously offer unique benefits
while sharing a common underlying pattern of gains.
Other effects, such as the improvements in mood and en-
ergy, could be due to the pleasant effects of learning a new
self-care skill. It could be also argued, since participants in
training cohorts 1 and 2 received breathing meditation and
body scan training before learning the other two practices, that
228 Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231
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these apparent Bcommonalities^might in actuality represent
carryover effects from the previous module. We were, how-
ever, able to investigate such sequence effects; TC1 and TC2,
where loving-kindness meditation was learned after the pres-
ence module, were compared to TC3, where loving-kindness
meditation was taught without any prior training. As described
above, we found few differences and many commonalities. In
particular, the increases in present focus, interoceptive aware-
ness, and energy, and decreases in distraction by thoughts, did
not differ significantly across the affect modules in TC1, TC2,
and TC3. This suggests that cultivating bodily awareness and
present focus is a core common feature of our four meditative
practices (or their context), as is feeling more positive and
energized after contemplative practice of any kind.
We have repeatedly referred to the richness of this data due
to the intensive measurement strategy of the project. While the
consistent and extensive measurement of participantssubjec-
tive states is a strength of this work, it retains the weaknesses
common to subjective self-report measures. The project was
designed to account for these weaknesses; asking participants
to report their mental state in the moment eliminates retrospec-
tive biasing of responses, and recording answers using sliding
scales rather than discrete values reduces the ability to repeat a
particular response from memory. However, self-report remains
only as valid as the participants own ability to introspect.
and using multilevel modeling to identify overall trends, helps
to separate the Bsignal^of real effects from the Bnoise^of error.
Similarly, the within-person nature of much of the ReSource
Project design is a strength that allows inferences about intra-
personal change due to meditation. However, within-person
designs are vulnerable to sequence effects. In the case of the
two main training cohorts (TC1 and TC2) of the ReSource
Project, the presence module was always taught first because
it laid the foundation for the other two modules, affect and
perspective. As practice compliance decreased over time, dif-
ferences between the presence practices and the other two core
practices (loving-kindness meditation in affect and observing-
thought meditation in perspective) could in part be attributed to
higher compliance rates in the presence module. Differences
between breathing meditation and body scan, however, would
not be affected by changes in compliance. Furthermore, the
counterbalanced training sequence for the affect and perspec-
tive modules across TC1 and TC2 controls for the potential
effects of compliance differences for those two modules.
Finally, participants in TC1 and TC2 underwent 9 months
of meditation training, a much longer period than is typical in
meditation research. A longer training period is useful for
observing whether the effectiveness of the various practices
changes over time. Training for three quarters of a year, how-
ever, means that the three modules were inevitably taught in
noticeably different seasons, with accompanying differences
in temperature, amount of sunlight, day length, etc. Seasonal
effects could be potentially confounded with differences in
training content. However, training in TC2 began 2 months
after TC1. In combination with the counterbalanced order of
the perspective and affect modules, the offset group design
ensures that none of the training modules were taught twice
in the same season. In addition, as shown in the Supplemental
material, there were no differences in the magnitude of state
changes for the two presence practices between TC1 and TC2,
despite being taught in different seasons. Thus, we conclude
that the effects of the training were not season-dependent.
Seasonal and compliance differences are confounding factors
in the between-person design used to investigate sequence effects
in the affect module across the three training cohorts. The affect
modules taught in TC1, TC2, and TC3 differ in sequence, sea-
son, and compliance rates. Thus, any differences between the
modules could potentially be due, in whole or in part, to non-
training-related differences. It is all the more surprising, therefore,
that almost no group differences were found; the affect module
training thus appears to be robust against variation in seasons and
compliance rates as observed in this study.
In conclusion, the unique fingerprints associated with dif-
ferent types of contemplative mental training reveal that med-
itation is not about engaging in indiscriminate mental effort;
each practice appears to create a distinct mental environment,
the long-term consequences of which are only beginning to be
Acknowledgments Open access funding provided by Max Planck
Society. We are thankful to all the members of the Department of Social
Neuroscience involved in the ReSource study over the years,in particular
to all ReSource teachers that taught the intervention program, to Astrid
Ackermann, Christina Bochow, Matthias Bolz, and Sandra Zurborg for
managing the large-scale longitudinal study; to Hannes Niederhausen,
Henrik Grunert, and Torsten Kästner for their technical support; and to
Sylvia Tydeks, Elisabeth Murzick, Manuela Hofmann, Sylvie Neubert,
and Nicole Pampus for their help with recruitment and data collection.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Funding Tania Singer, as principal investigator, received funding for
the ReSource Project from (a) the European Research Council under the
European Communitys Seventh Framework Program (FP7/20072013/
ERC Grant Agreement Number 205557 to T.S.) and (b) from the Max
Planck Society.
Conflict of Interest The authors declare that they have no conflict
of interest.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://, which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link
to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Mindfulness (2017) 8:218231 229
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... As a second aim, we were interested in participants' daily affective experience as well as thought patterns. Both have been shown to be salient dimensions of well-being and mental health (Fox et al., 2018;Fredrickson and Joiner, 2002;Ruby et al., 2013a) and common outcomes of mental practice (e.g., Fredrickson et al., 2017;Kok and Singer, 2017b). Accordingly, we repeatedly assessed individuals' first-person phenomenological experience regarding affect and arousal states as well as momentary thought content (Ruby et al., 2013a;Russel et al., 1989). ...
... Cultivation of present-moment awareness is another fundamental aim and main outcome of mindfulness interventions (Creswell, 2017;Hölzel et al., 2011) and the Presence module was specifically designed to train the ability to redirect attention to the present moment. In line with this initial hypothesis, subsequent ReSource findings focusing on questionnaire-based trait assessments (Hildebrandt et al., 2017) and acute practice effects (Kok and Singer, 2017b) showed a relative advantage of Presence training in fostering presence focus. Presence training was further found to be associated with comparably lower sympathetic arousal in another publication (Lumma et al., 2015). ...
... Supporting the assumption of facilitated socio-affective functioning, recent ReSource findings show most effective attenuations of acute cortisol reactivity during psycho-social stress after Affect and Perspective training, while all modules reduced subjective stress reactivity (Engert et al., 2017). Further supporting the assumption of affective improvements, subsequent ReSource findings using micro-phenomenological, qualitative interviews (Przyrembel and Singer, 2018) and acute practice state effects (Kok and Singer, 2017b) showed most pronounced increases in positive affect after Affect training. ...
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Mindfulness-based mental training interventions have become a popular means to alleviate stress and stress-associated health risks. Previous scientific investigations emphasize the importance of exploring the effects of such interventions in naturalistic settings to evaluate their implementation into daily life. Therefore, the current study examined the effects of three distinct mental training modules on a range of measures of daily life experience in the scope of the ReSource Project, a 9-month longitudinal mental training study comparing modules targeting attention and interoception (Presence), socio-affective (Affect) or socio-cognitive abilities (Perspective). We used ecological momentary assessment (EMA) to repeatedly probe levels of stress and stress-coping efficacy combined with stress-reactive cortisol levels, and further explored arousal, affective states, and thought patterns in the daily lives of 289 healthy adults (172 women; 20–55 years). We found increased presence-focused thought and heightened arousal after a training duration of 3-6 months, independent of the type of prior training. Increased coping efficacy emerged specifically after socio-cognitive Perspective training, following 6-9 months of training duration. No training effects were found for subjective stress, stress-reactive cortisol levels, or daily life affect. Our findings corroborate and add ecological validity to previous ReSource findings by showing that they replicate in participants’ everyday environment. Regarding endocrine and subjective stress markers, our results suggest caution in generalizing acute laboratory findings to individuals’ everyday routines. Overall, the current study provides substantiated insights into how cultivating one’s mind through contemplative mental training translates to daily life experience, enhances stress-coping, and may ultimately aide in maintaining health.
... Future research could examine the techniques and interim-states using participant-based methods like questionnaires (e.g., Kok & Singer, 2017;Woods et al., 2022b) or microphenomenology (e.g., Petitmengin et al., 2019;Przyrembel & Singer, 2018). Do participants apply the techniques, and experience interim-states, as described by the experts? ...
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In contentless experience (sometimes termed pure consciousness) there is an absence of mental content such as thought, perception, and mental imagery. The path to contentless experience in meditation can be taken to comprise the meditation technique, and the experiences (“interim-states”) on the way to the contentless “goal-state/s”. Shamatha, Transcendental, and Stillness Meditation are each said to access contentless experience, but the path to that experience in each practice is not yet well understood from a scientific perspective. We have employed evidence synthesis to select and review 135 expert texts from those traditions. In this paper we describe the techniques and interim-states based on the expert texts and compare them across the practices on key dimensions. Superficially, Shamatha and Transcendental Meditation appear very different to Stillness Meditation in that they require bringing awareness to a meditation object. The more detailed and systematic approach taken in this paper indicates that posturally Shamatha is closer to Stillness Meditation, and that on several other dimensions Shamatha is quite different to both other practices. In particular, Shamatha involves greater measures to cultivate attentional stability and vividness with respect to an object, greater focusing, less tolerance of mind-wandering, more monitoring, and more deliberate doing/control. Achieving contentless experience in Shamatha is much slower, more difficult, and less frequent. The findings have important implications for taxonomies of meditation and for consciousness, neuroscientific, and clinical research/practice, and will provide new and useful insights for meditation practitioners.
... Additionally, tests to see if the current findings have any relationship to compassionrelevant behavioral or self-report measures would help to clarify our interpretations. Generally, a primary challenge in studying brain activity during meditative practices is that it is impossible to know exactly what a person is doing at any given moment, particularly without in-depth phenomenological reporting (e.g., Kok & Singer, 2017;Petitmengin et al., 2019;Przyrembel & Singer, 2018). Including approaches that address the phenomenological gap between third and first person measures may be an important aspect of future studies attempting to capture and interpret the variation and richness of meditative experience Lutz & Thompson, 2003;Varela, 1996). ...
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Humans have a remarkable capacity to feel and enact care for others. But this capacity is not universally expressed: decades of research have elucidated the contextual, social, cognitive-affective, and relational factors that limit the tendency to experience empathy and engage in prosocial action. Buddhist contemplative traditions have long been concerned with the alleviation of suffering and expanding the boundaries of those who we hold in our circle of care. Recent years have seen a growth of interest in contemplative approaches to cultivating compassionate responses to suffering. This dissertation explores contemplative approaches to training compassion, focusing on the question of whether we can, with volitional training, expand the boundaries of our circle of care. Chapter 1 draws on contemporary research from cognitive, affective, and social psychology to provide an integrative review of empirical studies of compassion training. I consider what constitutes compassion training and offer a summary of current meditation-based approaches. I then provide an overview of the empirical evidence for a relationship between compassion training and changes in socioemotional processes, prosocial behavior, and physiological stress responses to the perception of others’ suffering. I further address challenges in interpreting data from these studies, considering training-related mechanisms of change and how compassion-relevant processes might develop over time. I conclude by outlining key theoretical challenges for future research. Chapters 2 and 3 empirically investigate two key issues in contemplative approaches to training compassion: the generalization of training effects, and the volitional expansion of the circle of care. Leveraging EEG data collected as part of the Shamatha Project—a multimethod study of the psychobiological effects of intensive meditation retreat training—these chapters work to contribute to the understanding of the neurocognitive consequences of intensive contemplative training. Establishing whether effects instantiated through meditation training generalize to other, non-meditative states is an essential link in understanding how contemplative training may influence behavior—including responses to suffering—outside of the meditative context. In Chapter 2, I examine retreat-related changes in the resting brain. I show that rest is not a static baseline but rather indexes behaviorally meaningful effects of retreat training. Notably, the training-related changes in the resting brain observed in Chapter 2 closely mirror patterns of change observed in these same participants when they actively practiced mindfulness of breathing meditation. This offers support for the idea that changes instantiated during meditation practice may generalize to other, non-meditative contexts, providing key evidence for the generalization of meditation-related change. In Chapter 3, I explore whether brain activity recorded during compassion meditation provides evidence that contemplative training can extend the circle of care. Using microstate analysis, I first show that the general patterns of retreat-related change observed during compassion meditation are similar to those of the resting brain. This finding establishes global shifts in brain dynamics as a core consequence of intensive meditation training. I next use sequence analysis to compare temporal patterns of brain activity during compassion meditation when a close other, a difficult other, and all others are taken as the object of compassion. I hypothesize that the mental representations of these various others—reflected in the ongoing activity of the brain—should become more similar with training. I find consistent differences in microstate sequences as a function of the target of compassion. I do not, however, find any evidence that these sequences become more similar with training. Thus Chapter 3 establishes microstate sequence analysis as a viable method for distinguishing target-based differences in brain activity during compassion meditation, but does not offer evidence for the extension of the circle of care. As a whole, this dissertation grapples with how we can understand and measure the consequences of contemplative practice. The empirical studies offer two small contributions to the greater project of understanding if and how we can collectively expand our circles of care.
... In line with the model by Murphy et al. (2019), ecological momentary assessments might be used to assess interoceptive states in everyday life (Bornemann and Singer, 2017;Kok and Singer, 2017) and to sensitize for a more frequent attention to interoceptive signals, i.e., potentially, not only focusing on cardiac but also respiratory or gastrointestinal signals. Furthermore, in addition to confidence ratings, appropriate questionnaires, such as the Interoceptive Accuracy Scale (Murphy et al., 2019) or the Interoceptive Confusion Questionnaire (Murphy et al., 2019), to quantify IS. ...
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Recent studies showed promising short-term effects of heartbeat perception training on interoceptive abilities. Research on the effects of heartbeat perception training on interoceptive abilities over time is sparse. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine the short-term effects and the effects of a 3-week heartbeat perception training over time on interoceptive abilities, namely, cardiac interoceptive accuracy (IAc) and interoceptive sensibility (IS). A total of 40 healthy participants were randomized to the intervention group (n = 20) or the control group (n = 20). The intervention group conducted three cardiac biofeedback sessions (one per week) at the laboratory, whereas the control group watched a documentary instead. Interoceptive abilities were assessed via the heartbeat perception task (IAc) and confidence ratings (IS) at baseline, after each laboratory session, and 1 week after the last session (post-measurement). IAc was significantly increased in the intervention group compared to the control group after the first training session (short-term effect). There were no significant improvements in IS due to the first session, and neither on IAc nor IS over time. Descriptive trends of improved interoceptive abilities over time were found in both groups. Single session of heartbeat perception training seems to be a promising approach to improve IAc. Future research should further investigate the long-term effects of diverse heartbeat perception training varying in frequency and intensity of the training sessions in diverse samples aiming to improve interoceptive abilities.
... The first four moderators were chosen based on the results of previous meta-analyses focusing on meditation, which often show smaller effect sizes in studies with larger samples, in non-clinical samples, in randomized controlled trials, and in studies of high methodological quality (Sedlmeier et al., 2012). The remaining two moderators were chosen because the effect sizes often vary for different types of meditation and different lengths of meditation interventions (Kok & Singer, 2017), thus we wanted to test these moderators in the context of participant characteristics and meditation. We also examined the methodological rigor of the studies included in our analyses given that concerns have been raised about the methodological quality of meditation studies (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009;Goyal et al., 2014). ...
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Objectives: Meditation interventions typically show small to moderate effects on health and well-being, but we know little about how these effects vary across individuals. This meta-analytic study investigates the relationship between baseline participant characteristics and the outcomes of meditation. Methods: A systematic search yielded 51 eligible studies with 7782 participants. A combination of subgroup analyses and meta-regression based on the random-effects model were used. Results: We found that a higher baseline level of psychopathology or depression was associated with deterioration in mental health after a meditation intervention. On the other hand, participants with higher scores on interpersonal variables, motivation, medical conditions, and mindfulness showed higher levels of positive meditation outcomes. Higher well-being and stress were simultaneously associated with moderate increases in negative and positive meditation outcomes. Participant demographics, psychological traits, self-concept, and length of meditation practice did not significantly influence the response to meditation. Conclusions: Overall, we found that meditation interventions affect participants differently, and identified some of the individual characteristics that should be considered when using meditation interventions.
... For example, exposure is known to work because of changes in the amygdala that reduce the sympathetic response and fear-related behaviours (Soya & Sakurai, 2020), while behavioural activation targets two mechanisms known to underlie depression, namely, deficits in cognitive control linked to prefrontal structures and hyper-responsivity to sad stimuli associated with limbic dysfunction (Dichter et al., 2010). In another illustration of pioneering research that connects specific psychotherapy techniques to mechanisms, Singer and colleagues demonstrated that different types of meditation target different psychological mechanisms, such as interoception, positive thoughts and present focus, and produce distinct neurobiological changes (Favre et al., 2021;Kok & Singer, 2017). ...
Multiple psychological treatments for emotional disorders have been developed and implemented, improving the quality of life of individuals. Nevertheless, relapse and poor response to psychotherapy are common. This article argues that a greater understanding of both the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms of change in psychotherapy is essential to improve treatment for emotional disorders. It aims to demonstrate how an understanding of these mechanisms provides a basis for: (i) reconceptualizing some mental disorders; (ii) refining and establishing the evidence for existing therapeutic techniques; and (iii) designing new techniques that precisely target the processes that maintain these disorders. Possible future directions for researchers and practitioners working at the intersection of neuropsychology and clinical psychology are discussed.
... However, these meditations and modern mindfulness-based interventions only slightly improve the objective interoceptive accuracy measured by the heartbeat detection task (Fischer et al., 2017;Khalsa et al., 2020;Nielsen & Kaszniak, 2006). Moreover, a sufficient amount of evidence supports how these practices improve subjective interoceptive sensibility (de Jong et al., 2016;Kok & Singer, 2017;Nyklíček, 2020). Nevertheless, whether mindfulness training affects metacognitive awareness as quantified by the correspondence between objective and subjective interoceptive measures is yet to be confirmed. ...
Although accumulating evidence has revealed the effect of mindfulness training on the reduction of general stress and the improvement of mental well-being, the underlying mechanism remains unclear. In this study, we investigated whether interoceptive attention to respiratory signals plays a role. Healthy adults were randomly assigned to either receive an 8-week mindfulness training (n = 29) or inactive control (n = 28). The pre- and post-training self-reported states of negative mood were assessed together with an objective measure of interoceptive attention to respiration. Compared to the control group, mindfulness training led to a decrease in the level of negative mood and an increase in interoceptive sensitivity. Mediation analysis further showed that the effect of mindfulness training on the reduction of negative mood was fully mediated by increased interoceptive sensitivity. These results suggest that mindfulness training effectively alleviates negative mood by enhancing interoceptive attention to respiratory signals.
Positive emotion regulation, that is, upregulating, maintaining, and savoring positive emotions, also bears the potential to counteract and thus mitigate negative affect. In this narrative review, we report on the social emotion of compassion as a particularly efficient form of positive emotion regulation. Compassion emerges as an affiliative response to the suffering of others. It is characterized by feelings of warmth and kindness and an initiation of prosocial caring behavior towards others. The inherent positivity of compassion is also in line with the related neural correlates. Compassion is associated with activity in the ventral striatum, the (subgenual) anterior cingulate cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex, brain regions related to strong positive emotions, such as romantic and maternal love. In addition to its long tradition in Eastern philosophy, the practice of compassion has in recent years found its way into interventions in Western psychology, for example, within compassion-focused therapy. Recent findings confirm that affect-related mental training promoting compassion is also linked to functional and structural changes in neural networks associated with positive emotions and emotion regulation. This compassion-related plasticity in the neural systems of positive emotion regulation suggests that incorporating compassion into psychological interventions could prove to be a particularly effective way to support positive emotion regulation.
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Background: Obesity and overweight are public health problems of multifactorial etiology, aggravated by the challenge that is maintaining weight loss. Used in the context of general health, mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have also showed positive effects when targeting changes to overweight-related eating behaviors. Methods: This study consists of a pragmatic randomized controlled trial conducted with 284 women from primary health care units. Data were collected from the last session with 16 focus groups, considering each intervention group (mindfulness or mindful eating) Aim: This article aims to present the perceptions of low-income overweight women who participated in Mindfulness and Mindful Eating intervention groups in primary health care according to each type of intervention. Results: Seven themes were identified: course challenges; valorization of the teacher's attitudes; mindfulness understanding; self-awareness development; change of expectations; development of a different food–weight relationship; and discover of a wide range of benefits. Conclusion: Mindfulness and Mindful eating interventions affect not only an individual's relationship with body and food, but also life and human relations. The results indicate the feasibility of the intervention, which addresses a large number of patients who lack treatment options for overweight or emotional and psychological issues associated with this condition. MBIs such as mindful eating are applicable in primary health care facilities, targeting overweight women and supporting treatment by addressing a repressed demand in the system. Similar to mind-body therapies, these interventions allow for comprehensive care., (NCT02893150) on 30 March 2017.
A recurring problem for the study of the neural correlates of conscious experience states is the lack of continuous measures for first-person reports. In this thesis, I introduce Temporal Experience Tracing as a method for capturing continuous subjective experiences. This method requires participants to retrospectively graph the intensity of an experience along several phenomenological dimensions over time. I present the results from two groups practising three styles of mindfulness meditation in either a 3-day Retreat setting, or over several months in their own homes. The traces revealed common experience states with transition dynamics shared between the participant groups. We found both meditation style-specific experience states, as well as a cluster of difficulties experienced with the practice. From low-density portable EEG recordings, 98 neural features were computed, including spectral features, connectivity measures and information theoretic measures. These features enabled classification of the data-driven experience clusters in unseen meditation sessions from known participants in both meditation groups, while the meditation style could only be classified in the more experienced participant group, the Home meditation group. Finally, using univariate classifications, the neural features enabling correct binary classifications of experience states are studied. Supporting the idea of inter-individual phenomenological similarity, neural markers associated with high classification accuracies strongly overlapped between the two groups. Furthermore, we did not find an effect of mindfulness training on the classification accuracy of subjective experience states, suggesting that this method can capture aspects of the true underlying experiences even in untrained participants. This study is the first of its kind, combining a quantitative analysis of phenomenological structures in time with a data-driven approach to the study of neural correlates of mental states. Future applications of temporal experience tracing are discussed, including the study of temporal dynamics of continuous states of consciousness and the integration of the experience dynamics with neural dynamics.
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The ReSource Project is a unique, large-scale study on Eastern and Western methods of mental training. Over a period of eleven months, participants practice a wide range of mental exercises that are designed to enhance attentional control, body- and self-awareness, healthy emotion regulation, self-care, compassion, empathy, and perspective taking. Overall, the aim of the training is to improve mental health and social skills. It may reduce stress, improve mental clarity, increase life satisfaction, and lead to a better understanding of others’ views, values and actions. This book, intended as a supplement to published and upcoming peer-reviewed publications, provides an overview of the theoretical rationale, training practices, study methods and measures, as well as sample demographics at start of study.
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Background: Individuals with a history of recurrent depression have a high risk of repeated depressive relapse/recurrence. Maintenance antidepressant medication (m-ADM) for at least 2 years is the current recommended treatment, but many individuals are interested in alternatives to m-ADM. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to reduce the risk of relapse/recurrence compared with usual care but has not yet been compared with m-ADM in a definitive trial. Objectives: To establish whether MBCT with support to taper and/or discontinue antidepressant medication (MBCT-TS) is superior to and more cost-effective than an approach of m-ADM in a primary care setting for patients with a history of recurrent depression followed up over a 2-year period in terms of preventing depressive relapse/recurrence. Secondary aims examined MBCT's acceptability and mechanism of action. Design: Single-blind, parallel, individual randomised controlled trial. Setting: UK general practices. Participants: Adult patients with a diagnosis of recurrent depression and who were taking m-ADM. Interventions: Participants were randomised to MBCT-TS or m-ADM with stratification by centre and symptomatic status. Outcome data were collected blind to treatment allocation and the primary analysis was based on the principle of intention to treat. Process studies using quantitative and qualitative methods examined MBCT's acceptability and mechanism of action. Main outcomes measures: The primary outcome measure was time to relapse/recurrence of depression. At each follow-up the following secondary outcomes were recorded: number of depression-free days, residual depressive symptoms, quality of life, health-related quality of life and psychiatric and medical comorbidities. Results: In total, 212 patients were randomised to MBCT-TS and 212 to m-ADM. The primary analysis did not find any evidence that MBCT-TS was superior to m-ADM in terms of the primary outcome of time to depressive relapse/recurrence over 24 months [hazard ratio (HR) 0.89, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.67 to 1.18] or for any of the secondary outcomes. Cost-effectiveness analysis did not support the hypothesis that MBCT-TS is more cost-effective than m-ADM in terms of either relapse/recurrence or quality-adjusted life-years. In planned subgroup analyses, a significant interaction was found between treatment group and reported childhood abuse (HR 1.89, 95% CI 1.06 to 3.38), with delayed time to relapse/recurrence for MBCT-TS participants with a more abusive childhood compared with those with a less abusive history. Although changes in mindfulness were specific to MBCT (and not m-ADM), they did not predict outcome in terms of relapse/recurrence at 24 months. In terms of acceptability, the qualitative analyses suggest that many people have views about (dis)/continuing their ADM, which can serve as a facilitator or a barrier to taking part in a trial that requires either continuation for 2 years or discontinuation. Conclusions: There is no support for the hypothesis that MBCT-TS is superior to m-ADM in preventing depressive relapse/recurrence among individuals at risk for depressive relapse/recurrence. Both treatments appear to confer protection against relapse/recurrence. There is an indication that MBCT may be most indicated for individuals at greatest risk of relapse/recurrence. It is important to characterise those most at risk and carefully establish if and why MBCT may be most indicated for this group. Trial registration: Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN26666654. Funding: This project was funded by the NIHR Health Technology Assessment programme and the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 19, No. 73. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.
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This chapter discusses the inclusion of phenomenological analysis in the cognitive psychological research of meditation. Different meditation styles involve the specific changes of the mind, such as a long-lasting, vivid, and stable mental imagery in some types of Tibetan meditation. Comparative phenomenological analysis of the Deity Yoga, mandala, Vipashyana, and Rig-pa types of Tibetan meditation was included in designing a cognitive experiment. Results indicate the increase of visual working memory due to the practice of Deity Yoga, suggesting access to the heightened visual processing resources (Kozhevnikov, Louchakova, Josipovic, & Motes. Psychological Science 20(5):645–653, 2009). The phenomenological part of the design, reported here for the first time, included a new methodology termed phenomenological-cognitive mapping (PCM). PCM linked the comparative phenomenological analysis of meditation to the psychological parameters of cognitive testing. PCM proved to be crucial in designing a successful experiment that led to novel findings. In the absence of PCM, isolating the meditation style that causes the optimization of visual-spatial processing and finding at what stage of meditation this happens would not be possible. This chapter argues in favor of including a detailed phenomenological analysis of experience in the cognitive research of meditation, as opposed to using only general classifications such as meditation styles.
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Background: Individuals with a history of recurrent depression have a high risk of repeated depressive relapse or recurrence. Maintenance antidepressants for at least 2 years is the current recommended treatment, but many individuals are interested in alternatives to medication. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to reduce risk of relapse or recurrence compared with usual care, but has not yet been compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in a definitive trial. We aimed to see whether MBCT with support to taper or discontinue antidepressant treatment (MBCT-TS) was superior to maintenance antidepressants for prevention of depressive relapse or recurrence over 24 months. Methods: In this single-blind, parallel, group randomised controlled trial (PREVENT), we recruited adult patients with three or more previous major depressive episodes and on a therapeutic dose of maintenance antidepressants, from primary care general practices in urban and rural settings in the UK. Participants were randomly assigned to either MBCT-TS or maintenance antidepressants (in a 1:1 ratio) with a computer-generated random number sequence with stratification by centre and symptomatic status. Participants were aware of treatment allocation and research assessors were masked to treatment allocation. The primary outcome was time to relapse or recurrence of depression, with patients followed up at five separate intervals during the 24-month study period. The primary analysis was based on the principle of intention to treat. The trial is registered with Current Controlled Trials, ISRCTN26666654. Findings: Between March 23, 2010, and Oct 21, 2011, we assessed 2188 participants for eligibility and recruited 424 patients from 95 general practices. 212 patients were randomly assigned to MBCT-TS and 212 to maintenance antidepressants. The time to relapse or recurrence of depression did not differ between MBCT-TS and maintenance antidepressants over 24 months (hazard ratio 0·89, 95% CI 0·67-1·18; p=0·43), nor did the number of serious adverse events. Five adverse events were reported, including two deaths, in each of the MBCT-TS and maintenance antidepressants groups. No adverse events were attributable to the interventions or the trial. Interpretation: We found no evidence that MBCT-TS is superior to maintenance antidepressant treatment for the prevention of depressive relapse in individuals at risk for depressive relapse or recurrence. Both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms, and quality of life. Funding: National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment (HTA) programme, and NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula.
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As humans we are a highly social species: in order to coordinate our joint actions and assure successful communication, we use language skills to explicitly convey information to each other, and social abilities such as empathy or perspective taking to infer another person’s emotions and mental state. The human cognitive capacity to draw inferences about other peoples’ beliefs, intentions and thoughts has been termed mentalizing, theory of mind or cognitive perspective taking. This capacity makes it possible, for instance, to understand that people may have views that differ from our own. Conversely, the capacity to share the feelings of others is called empathy. Empathy makes it possible to resonate with others’ positive and negative feelings alike — we can thus feel happy when we vicariously share the joy of others and we can share the experience of suffering when we empathize with someone in pain. Importantly, in empathy one feels with someone, but one does not confuse oneself with the other; that is, one still knows that the emotion one resonates with is the emotion of another. If this self–other distinction is not present, we speak of emotion contagion, a precursor of empathy that is already present in babies.
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Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can reduce risk of depressive relapse for people with a history of recurrent depression who are currently well. However, the cognitive, affective and motivational features of depression and anxiety might render MBIs ineffective for people experiencing current symptoms. This paper presents a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of MBIs where participants met diagnostic criteria for a current episode of an anxiety or depressive disorder. Post-intervention between-group Hedges g effect sizes were calculated using a random effects model. Moderator analyses of primary diagnosis, intervention type and control condition were conducted and publication bias was assessed. Twelve studies met inclusion criteria (n = 578). There were significant post-intervention between-group benefits of MBIs relative to control conditions on primary symptom severity (Hedges g = -0.59, 95% CI = -0.12 to -1.06). Effects were demonstrated for depressive symptom severity (Hedges g = -0.73, 95% CI = -0.09 to -1.36), but not for anxiety symptom severity (Hedges g = -0.55, 95% CI = 0.09 to -1.18), for RCTs with an inactive control (Hedges g = -1.03, 95% CI = -0.40 to -1.66), but not where there was an active control (Hedges g = 0.03, 95% CI = 0.54 to -0.48) and effects were found for MBCT (Hedges g = -0.39, 95% CI = -0.15 to -0.63) but not for MBSR (Hedges g = -0.75, 95% CI = 0.31 to -1.81). This is the first meta-analysis of RCTs of MBIs where all studies included only participants who were diagnosed with a current episode of a depressive or anxiety disorder. Effects of MBIs on primary symptom severity were found for people with a current depressive disorder and it is recommended that MBIs might be considered as an intervention for this population.
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Objective: We compared mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) with both cognitive psychological education (CPE) and treatment as usual (TAU) in preventing relapse to major depressive disorder (MDD) in people currently in remission following at least 3 previous episodes. Method: A randomized controlled trial in which 274 participants were allocated in the ratio 2:2:1 to MBCT plus TAU, CPE plus TAU, and TAU alone, and data were analyzed for the 255 (93%; MBCT = 99, CPE = 103, TAU = 53) retained to follow-up. MBCT was delivered in accordance with its published manual, modified to address suicidal cognitions; CPE was modeled on MBCT, but without training in meditation. Both treatments were delivered through 8 weekly classes. Results: Allocated treatment had no significant effect on risk of relapse to MDD over 12 months follow-up, hazard ratio for MBCT vs. CPE = 0.88, 95% CI [0.58, 1.35]; for MBCT vs. TAU = 0.69, 95% CI [0.42, 1.12]. However, severity of childhood trauma affected relapse, hazard ratio for increase of 1 standard deviation = 1.26 (95% CI [1.05, 1.50]), and significantly interacted with allocated treatment. Among participants above median severity, the hazard ratio was 0.61, 95% CI [0.34, 1.09], for MBCT vs. CPE, and 0.43, 95% CI [0.22, 0.87], for MBCT vs. TAU. For those below median severity, there were no such differences between treatment groups. Conclusion: MBCT provided significant protection against relapse for participants with increased vulnerability due to history of childhood trauma, but showed no significant advantage in comparison to an active control treatment and usual care over the whole group of patients with recurrent depression.
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Recent work has highlighted that the generation of thoughts unrelated to the current environment may be both a cause and a consequence of unhappiness. The current study used lag analysis to examine whether the relationship between self-generated thought and negative affect depends on the content of the thoughts themselves. We found that the emotional content could strongly predict subsequent mood (e.g. negative thoughts were associated with subsequent negative mood). However, this direct relationship was modulated by the socio-temporal content of the thoughts: thoughts that were past- and other-related were associated with subsequent negative mood, even if current thought content was positive. By contrast, future- and self-related thoughts preceded improvements of mood, even when current thought content was negative. These results highlight the important link between self-generated thought and mood and suggest that the socio-temporal content plays an important role in determining whether an individual's future affective state will be happy or sad.
The present investigation employed a meta-analysis of 179 correlational studies and 37 clinical group comparison studies to examine the association between rumination and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Meta-analytic correlations revealed moderate associations between rumination and symptoms of anxiety and depression that were strongest for brooding and emotion-driven rumination. Symptoms of anxiety and depression also had significant independent effects on overall rumination and emotion-driven rumination. However, worry partially accounted for the associations of both depression and anxiety with rumination. Those with mood and anxiety disorders also reported more rumination than controls, an effect that was amplified by increased comorbidity. Those with mood disorders reported significantly more rumination than those with anxiety disorders. The implications of these findings for a transdiagnostic view of rumination are discussed.