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Introduction to Psychology of/& Mindfulness

Prof Chris Goto-Jones in this video discusses mindfulness from the angle of psychology.
So as we saw in the last module, one of the most important developments in the study of mindfulness in the contemporary period has been the way in which it’s emerged as a field of interest for psychologists, for psychotherapists, and neuroscientists. This trend which has developed exponentially over the last 20 years has pulled public discourse about mindfulness away from its traditional associations with religion and spirituality and augmented this picture with more clinical, technological, and scientific images. When we talk about mindfulness today, we’re increasingly likely to imagine FMRI and EEG brain scans rather than say incense burners and the scent of sandalwood. In this way, mindfulness shifts or perhaps expands from being an art into being a science.
Then perhaps it might be worth pausing for a moment here to consider whether you instinctively feel that mindfulness should be seen as an art or as a science, and why. In this module, we’re going to take a closer look at some of these contemporary developments and what we might think of as the science of mindfulness. In particular, we’re going to explore some of the ways in which mindfulness has been operationalized in psychology to isolate techniques and technologies especially those whose effectiveness can apparently be measured and quantified.
The key areas in our sessions during this module will be the most pervasive and the most studied mindfulness based interventions, that’s mindfulness based stress reduction or MBSR and mindfulness based cognitive therapy or MBCT. In this context, we’re going to pay particular attention to the dominance of so-called evidence based research, which seeks to test different mindfulness constructs in controlled conditions. The goal of such tests is to reveal what effects mindfulness actually has on practitioners, either in terms of say therapeutic treatments or in terms of neurological correlates. For instance, what evidence do we have that mindfulness alleviates stress or helps to prevent relapse into depression?
What evidence do we have that mindfulness is accompanied by increased recruitment of regulatory regions in the prefrontal cortex or reduced reactivity in brain regions responsible for stress cascading, like the amygdala or the anterior cingulate cortex. In fact, as we’ll see in the next session, we have considerable evidence for each of these claims. Of course, while the science of mindfulness yields a great many valuable and interesting findings, this data is not uncontroversial. Criticisms are leveled from many different directions at once. For some, the reliance of scientists on self reports from mindfulness practitioners undermines the reliability of their findings.
This is another way of saying that modern science in general, science as an enterprise if you like, maintains a deep seated skepticism about the value and the validity of subjective knowledge. What we think we experience is apparently less important than what we can objectively document about that experience. In a similar way, the preoccupation with the brain as the most appropriate or exclusive site to observe mindfulness might be criticized on at least two fronts. First, it potentially risk confusing activities of consciousness for activities of neurobiology or perhaps confusing the mind for the brain, if you like.
And second, even prioritizing the brain as the exclusive biological locus of thought, risks ignoring the role of the rest of the human body in its environment in cognitive processes. Such concerns as these seek to engage with the problems of dualism in modern science in which on the one hand, the immaterial is seen as less important than the material, so consciousness is important largely to the extent that it activates neurobiological correlates and on the other hand, the mind is isolated into the brain, while the rest of the body acts as a kind of organic machine in it’s control.
Critics will be quick to point out that neither of these dualistic assumptions are features of the Buddhist traditions on which mindfulness appears to many to be based. We’ll look at this much more closely in the next module. From entirely the opposite direction, the attempt to treat mindfulness as an operationalized construct that can be tested in this way, seems to some at least to destroy the basic integrity of mindfulness itself. That is all the scientific tests might be very interesting, perhaps even reliable in some sense, but it might be a mistake to claim that they had anything to do with mindfulness at all. Whatever it is they measure, it’s not real mindfulness.
That is, there appears to be clear conceptual and experiential water between constructing mindfulness as developed for the use of scientists and tests and real mindfulness as experienced by authentic practitioners in life. Indeed, when you look at the range of practices and activities and beliefs that seem to fall within the category of mindfulness, it is difficult to see how they can all count as the same thing. You might like to take a moment to think about all of the practices that you associate with mindfulness already. We’ll see later in this course, this alleged difference between constructed and authentic mindfulness is one of the ways in which the science of mindfulness becomes entangled in ideological and philosophical conflict.
As soon as we start to deploy this language of true mindfulness, or real mindfulness, we’re making strong political and ideological claims to ownership of the concept. When only I know what mindfulness really is, anything you do in it’s name is legitimate. One of the practical stakes in this conflict is the emotive question of what, if anything is foundational, special or even unique about mindfulness. How is it different from or similar to other therapeutic instruments such as cognitive behavioral therapy? How is it different from or similar to other mind body traditions of well-being such as yoga or Tai chi?
Through the process of isolating and operationalizing a construct, scientists have been able to learn a great deal about the salient components of mindfulness, and thus help us to understand how it might relate to and combine with other such practices. The idea that mindfulness is special or even unique in some way itself appears to be shared by almost everyone involved in the science of mindfulness. With a few important exceptions, most scientists working in this field today are rather self-consciously looking for the benefits of mindfulness training as a treatment protocol. And as we’ll see, this can have at least two potentially troubling effects.
The first is that scientists can sometimes appear to be just as evangelical about mindfulness as more spiritually oriented practitioners. Indeed, the overlap between these categories is noticeable in practice. Quite a few scientists in this area are themselves Buddhists and/or experienced meditators. And the second, is that the scientific findings tend to privilege beneficial outcomes from mindfulness training and thus risk overlooking or deep privileging any problems or even risks that may emerge from the practices themselves. This tendency can feed and can be fed by the Evangelical atmosphere.
So, in this module we will see how the emergence of a science of mindfulness not only offers new opportunities for our understanding and use of this complicated concept, but it also contributes to the construction of mindfulness as a site of contestation and conflict in the politics of knowledge today. In the next two sessions, we will explore some of the ways in which scientists have developed a form of construct mindfulness and designed various measures and techniques to quantify it, and then will then move on to consider why scientists might be interested in mindfulness in the first place. Which takes us to the so-called problem of dis-ease in contemporary societies.
And then we’ll take a look at the two major forms of mindfulness based interventions today, MBSR and MCBT before making an attempt to sketch out some of the common principles of these approaches. These should prepare us for the experience of widening our investigation of mindfulness in the next module in which we’ll see how construct mindfulness relates to and indeed differs from other conceptions and practices of mindfulness in various other philosophical traditions.

This week I will discuss the interest that the field of psychology holds in mindfulness, a trend in the last 20 years, taking it away from the more religious applications. Watch the video and then join me in a discussion.

Lets Discuss

Purpose: Consider and share your own experiences with (and knowledge of) Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs).

Task: Assess and discuss your understanding of the therapeutic and clinical deployment of mindfulness today, including the major programmes of MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) and MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), or any other programme you have encountered.

Response: Write a comment outlining the details of your experience of MBIs, and engage with the experiences of your peers.

Time: 5-10 minutes for your own comment; 5 minutes each for replies to 2 peers. You can also like other people’s comments.

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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