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Measuring mindfulness

Prof Chris Goto-Jones in this video discusses how science attempts to measure mindfulness and how succesful this is, or not.
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So even if we can resolve all of the conceptual difficulties we considered in the last session, we’re still left with the great many difficulties for the scientific measurement of construct mindfulness which is what we’ll consider in this session today. One of these great difficulties is with studying mindfulness as a condition or activity of other people rather than of ourselves. This is because it is very difficult to observe it. That is, it’s not immediately obvious when someone is being mindful. For instance, am I being mindful right now? Which of these people are being mindful? Come to that, given that mindfulness and meditation are not identical but only related things. Can we even tell which of these people are meditating?
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Perhaps one, or the other, or both are just sitting there or taking a rest wondering what they’re going to have for dinner.
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One of the things that beginners to mindfulness training often believe, is that the practice consists of sitting in a particular kind of way, and that this is somehow transparent to other people. Hence, we often ask whether we’re sitting properly as a coded way of asking whether we’re being mindful, perhaps you’ve asked this yourself either in our meditation labs or in other classes that you’ve attended. But of course, mindfulness has very little to do with the angle of your spine or the amount of light you allow into your eyes. Although there are good reasons for sitting in particular ways and closing your eyes a certain extent, to which we’ll return in the meditation labs.
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Mindfulness is concerned with what you’re doing in your mind. As we saw in the last session, it’s paying attention in a particular way, or perhaps better, it’s concerned with what you’re doing in your being. In the absence of the ability to look into someone’s mind and measure the extent of their mindfulness, with an instrument like a light meter. We’re left with attempting to deduce levels of mindfulness from external behavior, which seems to be as impossible as deducing meaning from action. Or we might attempt to utilize the most cutting edge technology available to us today. We might ask other people whether they feel or felt mindful in particular circumstances.
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To make matters worse there’s quite a lot of confusion about what it means to ask someone whether they feel mindful. For instance, I’m really interested to know whether you feel mindful right now? And so I need to ask you. Do you feel mindful right now?
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And if you answer to that complex and tricky question was yes, how confident are you that I would agree with your characterization of yourself as mindful, in that moment? Were I able to experience the experiences that you had in that moment for myself. In other words, had I been you, would I had been mindful? Now these are difficult questions, and various contemplative traditions have been struggling with them for centuries, even millenia. In some buddhist traditions for instance, a master will certify transmission to a disciple, on the basis of a form of mystical intuition that they have reached a certain level of mindful awareness and awakening.
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In some others, such certification will follow the successful completion of a particular sequence of Koan, or logically impossible riddles. However, in no case, at least that I’m aware of, has any fool-proof test been developed. There are any number of highly lauded Buddhist monks in the world who are probably less mindful than you are right now. This is not secret or heretical knowledge even if it doesn’t accord with the current romance of Buddhism in the west. So one of the big challenges for modern science has been to develop ways of measuring construct mindfulness that’s seen both reliable and robust.
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Now for those of you who’ve been wanting to interrupt with a question for the last couple of minutes since I brought it up, yes, we can now look into the neurological activity of individuals in an fMRI and EEG scans. And a great deal of work is being done with this technology and meditators. It’s becoming clear that mindfulness meditation is strongly associated with particular neurobiological changes. Perhaps the most famous study in this vein were those supervised by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about ten years ago. Davidson developed a relationship with the Dalai Lama who was himself promoting the possibility of an alliance between Buddhism and neuroscience. And welcomed about a dozen experienced Tibetan monks that he studies.
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First major breakthrough occurred in 2002, when one such monk with a 128 electrodes attached to his head was able to generate remarkable amounts of gamma wave activity. This is brain waves that ossillate approximately 40 times a second. This indicates densely focused, intensely focused thought. The fact that this showed that a monk with 10,000 hours of meditation could produce 30 times as much gamma activity as any students is remarkable. In addition, during compassion meditations, Davidson could show that large areas of the monk’s brain associated with positive emotions, such as the left prefrontal cortex, were unusually active.
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Davidson’s major theoretical contribution, though, was to hypothesize that these kinds of changes in the function and structure of the brain could become permanent features with sufficient practice and training. That is for our purposes today. Practicing mindfulness meditation as a discrete activity could result in neurological changes that transform people into more mindful and compassionate people in daily life, not only when they’re meditating. In more technical terms, this means that practicing state mindfulness, that is the cultivation of mindful moments in formal practices like meditation, could generalize into trait or depositional mindfulness. That is the transformation of our personalities in general.
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And in rather less technical terms, this means that the more you sit and practice mindfulness meditation, the more mindful you should become in the rest of your activities as well. The work of Davidson and others in this area has done a great deal to convince scientists that meditation is a real activity. That has measurable neurobiological consequences, which provides support for arguments that it can be used as a form of treatment, for psychological and neurological disorders that are associated with those parts of the brain that are activated, or deactivated by the practice. However, such studies and Davidson’s in particular have not been universally accepted.
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One of he major criticisms which we already considered briefly in the last session, is the appearance of ideological collusion between Buddhism and neuroscience. The atmosphere of the experiments appears to be tinged with a kind of reverence that some find inappropriate. It’s worth noting however, that a few of the voices protesting this alliance of Buddhism and science under the guise of defending the value neutrality of science, are the same as voices protesting that Buddhism should not be allowed into Christian societies at all. Hence the protest does not seem to defend science as value neutral and instead emerges as a form of the clash of civilizations, to which we’ll return in the final module of this course.
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Other criticisms of using EEG and fMRI scans to measure mindfulness, focus on the way that these technologies require very, very small samples. Sometimes just individuals, who are often monks or others who have devoted their lives to the activities that are apparently being measured. At the same time, scientists running such studies must still rely on asking these individuals to perform certain invisible acts of consciousness while they’re in the machines. Or on asking them what invisible events of consciousness they experienced while they were in these machines. In other words as yet, the science of mindfulness cannot escape the need to rely on the age old technique of simply asking people about their experiences of mindfulness.
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This reliance on self-reports generates all kinds of concerns about the reliability of the results in the field. Assuming that mindfulness is something real that can be measured. Do you self-reports really measure it? Can the same mindfulness scales and questions be used to assess the experiences of both experienced and novice meditator’s? Is all self-endorsement necessarily biased? Can we even assume that the questioner and the questioned share a common understanding of what mindfulness actually feels like? Even more profoundly perhaps, is mindfulness something that can even be expressed in every day language at all?
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As we’ll see in the next module, many of the contemplative traditions talk about the inexpressibility of these kinds of experiences, as though they occur somewhere prior to the possibility of language itself. This suggest that as soon as we give a name to what we experience in that place, we change it into something else. One of the major shortcomings of EEG and fMRI data studies however, is that they’re necessarily limited to measuring state mindfulness, that is the condition of mindfulness cultivated during moments of formal meditation in the machine. We have seen though that mindfulness and meditation are not identical concepts. Mindfulness also describes a trait, or a disposition, associated with how we live our lives.
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Of course, studies suggest that there are strong connections between cultivating state mindfulness and the enhancement of trait or dispositional mindfulness. But until we develop some form of wearable EEG or fMRI that can monitor us unobtrusively in our daily lives, we’re going to rely on self-reports for this. We’ll see in the last module of this course that some commercial companies are making great progress in the direction of wearable mindfulness monitors. So for these reasons and others, by far the most prevalent technology used for measuring construct mindfulness today remains the questionnaire. Some of these are designed to test state mindfulness immediately after formal practices. While others are designed to monitor trait or dispositional mindfulness of sample groups.
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You’ll find some popular examples of these in your course materials, and in the first module of this course, you’ll all have already taken the test associated with the influential MAAS, the mindful attention awareness scale.
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So supposing that we’re content after our previous session, that mindfulness is something that can be scientifically measured. We now have a bit of a sense of the difficulties of how to go about measuring it. The next question for us must be, why it’s the case that scientists have become so interested in mindfulness at all? Is it simply curiosity about a fashion or a fad? Checking to see whether meditation really does anything to us. Or is it the case that mindfulness seems to address a real scientifically visible issue in contemporary societies? These are the questions that will occupy us in our next session.

In this video, I explore the difficulties of measuring construct mindfulness. It is not immediately obvious when people are mindful, thus making it very difficult to measure. Can we even tell the difference between meditation and mindfulness? Are people just sitting there?

How mindful do you feel? Was this something you thought about prior to starting this course? Has your perception of your personal level of mindfulness changed?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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