EXPLORING THE IMPACT OF FOCUSED ATTENTION MEDITATION ON EMOTIONAL DISTRACTION: AN EXPERIMENTAL APPROACH
Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention intentionally, toward the present-moment, and in a manner that is non-reactive and non-judgmental. In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in mindfulness meditation as a way to become more mindful and enhance attention and emotional well-being (Pepping et al., 2016; Van Dam et al., 2018). Mindfulness meditation is a broad term that encompasses a family of practices that aim to promote mindfulness. In one broad type of mindfulness meditation—Focused Attention meditation—the meditator attempts to narrow attention and maintain focus on a target object (typically the sensations of breathing). To minimize disruptions to focus on the breath, the meditator attempts to maintain a non-reactive and non-judgmental attitude to whatever distractions arise, including those with emotional content (e.g., negative thoughts). Although there is evidence that Focused Attention meditation benefits attentional control in emotionally neutral contexts, little is known about its impact on attentional control in emotional contexts. Given Focused Attention meditation requires practitioners to maintain focus on a chosen object, one way it might foster emotional benefits is by improving the ability to ignore emotional distractors—an ability that is well researched outside of the context of mindfulness and is known to be important for emotional well-being. In this thesis I explore the cognitive, affective, and neural correlates of Focused Attention meditation, which might shed light on the mechanisms by which it enhances well-being.
There are two major limitations common in the relevant existing literature. First, most studies that examine the effects of mindfulness meditation use either cross-sectional designs (e.g., comparing meditators to non-meditators), or measure the effects of extended mindfulness interventions that are complex and multi-faceted. In both of these designs, it is often not possible to disentangle the effects of Focused Attention from other types of meditation (such as Open Monitoring), or to control for other confounds such as social facilitation or expectancy effects that may mediate cognitive and emotional effects. Second, most studies that examine the effects of mindfulness meditation on attentional control in emotional contexts use tasks in which emotional stimuli are not fully task-irrelevant, and thus do not strictly measure the ability to ignore emotional distractors (Lleras et al., 2013). In this thesis, I used lab-based experiments to overcome both limitations and to directly test the hypothesis that Focused Attention meditation improves the ability to ignore emotional distractors.
In all experiments, participants were randomly allocated to listen to either an audio recording that guided the participant in a brief Focused Attention meditation; or an audio recording of a TED talk about mindfulness (but with no instructions to be mindful) as a control condition. Immediately before and immediately after listening to the audio recording, participants from both groups completed a task designed to measure the ability to ignore emotional distractors. In this task, participants complete a simple visual search while attempting to ignore task-irrelevant negative (mutilation scenes) or neutral images (scenes of people), which were presented in different blocks. Intact images were presented on 25% of trials, and scrambled images were presented on the remaining 75% of trials. Distraction was indexed by slowing on trials in which intact compared to scrambled images appeared.
In Experiment 1, the guided meditation reduced distraction by negative but not neutral images relative to the control intervention, supporting the hypothesis that Focused Attention meditation improves the ability to ignore emotional distractors. Experiment 2 aimed to replicate and extend the first experiment by also recording EEG and psychophysiological measures of attentional and emotional processing—enabling me to look “under the hood” and examine which cognitive processes were affected by the meditation. Although the behavioural and EEG measures were sensitive to emotional distraction, the meditation had no significant impact on distraction (either negative or neutral), failing to replicate Experiment 1. EEG recordings also showed no evidence that meditation altered distractor processing or attentional control. Unexpectedly, exploratory analyses revealed no immediate impact of meditation on distraction in either experiment, but both Experiments 1 and 2 showed a gradual reduction in negative distraction across blocks following the meditation relative to the control intervention. Given these analyses were conducted post-hoc, I aimed to replicate the effect in a follow-up pre-registered experiment, which was conducted online due to COVID-19 restrictions. Distraction did not statistically differ between groups, failing to replicate the gradual reduction effect observed in Experiments 1& 2—possibly due to the guided meditation manipulation being less effective outside lab settings.
Despite the lack of replication in Experiment 3, the gradual reduction in emotional distraction following meditation was still robust in a mini-meta-analysis of all three experiments. Together, findings indicate that Focused Attention meditation has no immediate impact on distraction by negative emotional images. They tentatively suggest, however, that it might facilitate gradual improvement in the ability to ignore emotional distractors. I discuss a number of mechanisms by which this unexpected effect might occur. Future researchshould establish whether the current findings replicate; aim to elucidate the mechanisms involved; and examine the influence of “dose” (i.e., extent of meditation training). Doing so will help us to better understand how meditation affects the mind, and may guide clinicians to refine mindfulness interventions and optimize interventions to target specific outcomes or populations.