A new study led by University of Pennsylvania researchers has found a positive relationship between mindfulness training (MT) and improvements in mood and working memory.
Mindfulness is the ability to be aware and attentive of the present moment without emotional reactivity or volatility.
The study saw a high-stress U.S. military group preparing for deployment to Iraq being trained.
It was found that the more time participants spent engaging in daily mindfulness exercises the better their mood and working memory, the cognitive term for complex thought, problem solving and cognitive control of emotions.
The study also suggests that sufficient MT practice may protect against functional impairments related to high-stress challenges that need an large amount of cognitive control, self-awareness, situational awareness and emotional regulation.
To study the protective results of mindfulness training on psychological health in individuals about to experience extreme stress, cognitive neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Penn and Elizabeth A. Stanley of Georgetown University provided mindfulness training for the first time to U.S. Marines before deployment.
Jha and her team looked into working memory capacity and affective experience in individuals participating in a training program developed and delivered by Stanley, a former U.S. Army officer and security-studies professor with extensive experience in mindfulness techniques.
The objective of the program, called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), is to cultivate greater psychological resilience or “mental armour” by strengthening mindfulness.
The program stressed on incorporating mindfulness exercises, like focused attention on the breath and mindful movement, into pre-deployment training.
Jha said: “Our findings suggest that, just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness.
“Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick-and-considered decisions and action plans. Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training may help anyone who must maintain peak performance in the face of extremely stressful circumstances, from first responders, relief workers and trauma surgeons, to professional and Olympic athletes.” Study participants included two military cohorts of 48 male participants with an average age of 25 recruited from a detachment of Marine reservists during the high-stress pre-deployment interval and provided MT to one group of 31, leaving 17 Marines in a second group without training as a control. The MT group attended an eight-week course and logged the amount of out-of-class time they spent practicing formal exercises. The effect of the course on working memory was evaluated using the Operation Span Task, whereas the impact on positive and negative affect was evaluated using the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS.
The Positive Affect scale reflects the extent to which a person feels enthusiastic, active and alert. The Negative Affect scale reflects unpleasant mood states, such as anger, disgust and fear. Working memory capacity degraded and negative mood increased over time in the control group. A similar pattern was observed in those who spent little time engaging in mindfulness exercises within the MMFT group. Yet, capacity increased and negative mood decreased in those with high practice time over the eight weeks.
The study has appeared in the journal Emotion and the latest edition of Joint Force Quarterly, the advisory journal for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.