The matter of mindfulness : investigations into the mechanisms of mindfulness

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Mindfulness may be described as a state of heightened present-moment awareness that we all experience to a greater of lesser extent. Enhancing this quality of awareness through training has shown to alleviate stress and promote mental and physical well-being and, as a consequence, the clinical application of mindfulness is gaining in popularity. Because of this, there is a growing need to understand how mindfulness were investigaged in a series of research studies in this thesis, by means of literature analysis, clinical intervention, functional brain imaging and brain-lesion methods. In Study One a total of 10 commonly proposed mechanisms of mindfulness were identified through a qualitive systematic analysis of the literature: self-regulation, exposure, cognitive flexibility, acceptance, disidentification, awareness/insight, reattribution, attention, metacognition, and relaxation. Mediation analyses in Study Two confirmed that acceptance and cognitive flexibility significantly mediated the relationship between mindfulness and reduced symptoms of stress and the acceptance significantly mediated the relationship between mindfulness and mood disturbance. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was employed in Study Three to further test these findings and state mindfulness shown to mediate midline cortical regions associated with interoception. The findings of Study Three suggest that mindfulness may be associated with positive outcomes through a process of disidentification; a process described as removing the 'self' in the experiencing of passing events. Damage to the midline cortical brain regions identified in Study Three, however, showed to have no significant effect on naturally-occurring mindfulness, according the results of a pilot brain-lesion investigation in Study Four. Based on the findings of the studies in this thesis, it is suggested that mindfulness may reduce vulnerability to stress and emotional distress through a meta-mechanism of disidentification and through more direct mechanisms: acceptance and cognitive flexibility. The collected evidence supports the application of mindfulness training as an intervention to advance affective and cognitive well-being. At a broader level, the findings also establish a firmer relationship between mental control and optimal mental functioning.

Includes abstract.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 126-145).