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The Wandering Mind vs. Mindfulness

Neuroimaging Research has grappled with the concept of a “resting brain”. Researchers interested in Consciousness have grappled with localizing subjective states of awareness and the elusive “self”. It seems that contemplative science is bringing both concepts to the table given the profound interest in tracing neurophenomenological states associated with “the self” and intentional, meditative practices.

All functional neuroimaging research has focused on Blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) changes in the whole brain associated with a particular active, goal-directed, cognitive or emotional function and which has shown to be statistically different from BOLD activity across the whole brain during a “passive” baseline state. The baseline state that most researchers use is typically a 5-6 min long period of passive “rest”. The instructions are typically, “Let your mind freely wander” and “try not to think of anything in particular”. These instructions sound benign and appear to be the perfect baseline state, but as it turns out, [surprise…surprise] a wandering mind is quite active. The mind in this baseline state has shown to have a tendency to wander towards self-reflection (in the past and into the future). Some researchers have called this type of wandering, “mental time travel”.

Recently, a growing body of research has investigated the nature of this resting, or “default” state, and has found that brain activation previously considered to be spontaneous noise actually reflects the operation of active and functionally connected neural networks. These patterns of activation has been termed the default mode network (DMN), have been shown to increase during passive states of rest, to diminish during tasks involving attention or goal-directed behavior, and tend to implicate brain areas associated with self-reflection, internal mentation, and narrative self-focus. In many forms of psychopathology, the DMN has been found to be more active during resting states and less likely to decrease in activation during active goal-directed tasks, suggesting a relationship between psychopathology, excessive self-reflection or rumination [about past events], and increased self-projection [into the future].

In a recent study[Link] by friend and colleague, Judson Brewer at Yale University, adept meditators trained in meditation techniques rooted mostly in Theravada (vipassana/insight) traditions actively meditated using multiple types of meditation practices (Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless Awareness) while being imaged in the MRI. A “mind-wander” rest state was the baseline state in this case, and comparisons were made also between the adepts and a group of novices who had brief instructions how to perform each meditative practice.

As seen below, Experienced meditators demonstrate decreased DMN activation during meditation. Brain activation in meditators > controls is shown, collapsed across all meditations (relative to baseline). (A and B) BOLD activations were found to be greater in the left mPFC and PCC for adepts. Although, one should take note that the % change was very minimal (about .25 % at most). The mPFC and PCC are critical nodes of activation during typical mind wandering, self-reflection, and the core areas for the DMN.

Choiceless Awareness (green bars), Loving-Kindness (red), and Concentration (blue) meditations. Note that decreased activation in PCC in meditators is common across different meditation types. n = 12 per group.

What does this mean?

You may ask what this means and how it relates to mindfulness and mind-wandering. It suggests that adept meditators spend less time using the self-reflective network or “DMN” while meditating. This makes sense given the heavy reliance on concentration in these practices. But how about when adepts are simply “wandering” during passive rest? Are they like everyone else? Do they also reflect upon themselves in the past or into the future? This study did not quite capture the phenomenological differences between the groups, but it did find that the DMN had different functional connectivity patterns.

Using mPFC as a seed region for connectivity, they found increased connectivity with the fusiform gyrus, inferior temporal and parahippocampal gyri, and left posterior insula (among other regions) in meditators relative to controls during meditation. Using the PCC as a seed region, increased connectivity (compared with controls) was found with the dorsal ACC and DLPFC during all meditative states and baseline wandering, suggesting increased cognitive monitoring and working memory across both meditative and passive resting states. It would be helpful to know if there was a qualitative aspect of “wandering” that was about equal for meditators and controls.

Similarly, David Creswell and Lisa Kilpatrick demonstrated that 8-weeks of MBSR training showed increased functional connectivity of dmPFC (an anterior DMN region) with an auditory/salience neural network (especially with BA 22/39 (associated with auditory processing) and the dorsal ACC (involved in salience) . They suggest these results indicate greater positive coherence between self-referential, attention, and auditory sensory processing and may underlie  greater attention and reflective awareness of auditory experience in MBSR trained subjects.

Again, the DMN is used here as a proxy for a “wandering mind”. Decreased activity in the cortical midline structures that make up this network reflects less self-reflection or narrative self-processing, and suggests more present-centered awareness, monitoring, and attention of interoceptive and exteroceptive stimuli in the environment and associated with the body. The reason I bring attention to this area of research is that contemplative neuroscientists will likely have to take these differences in the DMN between novices and adepts into consideration when scanning meditative states. In other words, a passive mind wandering state may be different between adepts and novices or naives. Thus, between groups comparisons should likely account for these differences and at the very least, quantify the qualitative aspects of mind wandering between groups.


There is some evidence that mind wandering is adaptive. One study (for example) by Jonathan Schooler and colleagues demonstrates that increased mind wandering during a boring task increased creativity. Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas.

See New Yorker write up [Link]

Here are some links to press related to these studies:

psychology today [Link]

Mechanisms of Mindfulness – Deconstructing the concept into psychological and neurobiological terms

A new paper has come out in the November issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science [Link]

This paper is one of the first to begin deconstructing the concept into component processes for investigation both at the clinical and basic science level. Previous attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on the most widely cited definition:

paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book, “Coming to Our Senses” as:

moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and openheartedly as possible. When it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as deliberate mindfulness. When it spontaneously arises, as it tends to do more and more the more it is cultivated intentionally, it is sometimes referred to as effortless mindfulness.

Other attempts at operationalizing the concept have relied on this definition for a framework. See table below

Here, we unpack the definition by illustrating very specific core neurocognitive processes that appear to be targeted in cultivating mindfulness as a state and trait. These processes are supported by the extant literature with specific neuroanatomical targets as well

I elaborate a bit more on dismantling mindfulness here [Link]

see vol 12 (2011) of Contemporary Buddhism for some great commentary on the difficulty of operationalizing mindfulness [Link]:

  • Dreyfus, G. (2011). “Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 41 – 54.
  • Dunne, J. (2011). “Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 71 – 88.
  • Williams, J. M. G. and J. Kabat-Zinn (2011). “Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 1 –
  • Gethin, R. (2011). “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263 – 279.

Many researchers now agree that mindfulness can be thought of as multi-dimensional set of skills that can be developed through the practice of specific types of meditation; however, we need to be careful not to confuse the concept of mindfulness with the common every-day usage of the term and contextualize the concept as a state, trait, type of practice, and intervention.

Media coverage for this paper:

Psych Central: “Meditation improves quality of life” [Link]

Huffington Post: “Why Mindfulness Meditation makes us healthier” [Link]

The Secular Buddhist interviews Dr. Holzel concerning this paper here [Link]

Measures of Mindfulness (revisiting the problems of defining the concept)

As clinicians, researchers, and basic scientists, we are slowly operationalizing the concept of mindfulness. It is important that we consider the cultural context from which the term arises and clearly distinguish it from secular practices like:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (E.Jacobson)
Relaxation Response (H.Benson)
Biofeedback-induced relaxation
Situational Awareness (E. Langer)

These practices all involve:
Cultivation of Mental Discipline, primarily through discursive strategies.
Heightened ability to stop and start thoughts and emotions
Reduced susceptibility to mental habits; increased ability to develop new habits

In order of personal preference: 1. Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) – (Baer et al., 2006) – The FFMQ, revised from the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills, is used to assess the construct of mindfulness. Previous research on assessment of mindfulness by self-report suggests that it may include five component skills: observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudging of inner experience, and nonreactivity to inner experienc … Read More

via Contemplative Mind in Life

Self-Report Measures of Mindfulness

In NO particular order of preference:

1. Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) [Link] – The FFMQ, revised from the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills, is used to assess the construct of mindfulness. Previous research on assessment of mindfulness by self-report suggests that it may include five component skills: observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudging of inner experience, and nonreactivity to inner experience. These elements of mindfulness can be measured with the FFMQ.

Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., et al. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13(1), 27-45. [link]

Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Lykins, E., et al. (2008). Construct validity of the five facet mindfulness questionnaire in meditating and nonmeditating samples. Assessment, 15(3), 329-42. [link]

Van Dam, N. T., Earleywine, M., & Danoff-Burg, S. (2009). Differential item function across meditators and non-meditators on the five facet mindfulness questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(5), 516-521. [link]

2. Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS) – A 15-item, reverse-scored, 7-point scale (1 = almost always; 6 = almost never) self-report instrument with a single factor measuring attention to and awareness across several domains of experience in daily life (e.g., cognitive, emotional, physical, and general), such as “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present” and “I rush through activities without being really attentive to them.” Respondents rate how often they have experiences of acting on automatic pilot, being preoccupied and not paying attention in the present moment. The MAAS has a uni-dimensional factor structure that eliminated attitudinal components (i.e., acceptance) given the author’s findings of such components offering no explanatory advantage (Brown and Ryan, 2003). The MAAS appears to have appropriate application in research examining the role of mindfulness in the psychological well-being of college, working adults, and cancer patients, with or without comparisons to nonclinical controls.

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-48. [link]

Carlson, L. E., & Brown, K. W. (2005). Validation of the mindful attention awareness scale in a cancer population. J Psychosom Res, 58(1), 29. [link]

MacKillop, J., & Anderson, E. J. (2007). Further psychometric validation of the mindful attention awareness scale (MAAS). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 29(4), 289-293.[link]

Cordon, S. L., & Finney, S. J. (2008). Measurement invariance of the mindful attention awareness scale across adult attachment style. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 40(4), 18. [link]

Hansen, E., Lundh, L. G., Homman, A., et al. (2009). Measuring mindfulness: Pilot studies with the swedish versions of the mindful attention awareness scale and the Kentucky inventory of mindfulness skills. Cogn Behav Ther, 38(1), 2-15. [link]

Christopher, M. S., Charoensuk, S., Gilbert, B. D., Neary, T. J., & Pearce, K. L. (2009). Mindfulness in thailand and the united states: A case of apples versus oranges? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 590-612. [link]

Van Dam, N. T., Earleywine, M., & Borders, A. (2010). Measuring mindfulness? An item response theory analysis of the mindful attention awareness scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 805. [link]

3.Toronto Mindfulness Scale (TMS) – A 13-item, two-factor structure (Curiosity, Decentering), uniquely state-oriented for use immediately following a meditation experience, has been validated in a number of clinical contexts. The items of Factor 1 (Curiosity) reflect an attitude of wanting to learn more about one’s experiences. The items of Factor 2 (Decentering) reflect a shift from identifying personally with thoughts and feelings to relating to one’s experience in a wider field of awareness

Lau, M. A., Bishop, S. R., Segal, Z. V., et al. (2006). The toronto mindfulness scale: Development and validation. J Clin Psychol, 62(12), 1445. [link]

Davis, K. M., Lau, M. A., & Cairns, D. R. (2009). Development and preliminary validation of a trait version of the toronto mindfulness scale. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3), 185-197. [link]

4. The Revised 12-item Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale (CAMS-R)  uni-dimensional, 12-item inventory that measures mindfulness during general daily occurrences on four components allegedly needed to reach a mindful state (i.e., attention, awareness, present-focus, and acceptance/nonjudgment). 

Feldman, G., Hayes, A., Kumar, S., et al. (2007). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: The development and initial validation of the cognitive and affective mindfulness scale-revised (CAMS-R). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 29(3), 177-190.[link]

5. The Southampton Mindfulness Questionnaire (SMQ) – uni-dimensional, 16-item inventory assessing the degree to which individuals respond to distressing thoughts and images using four aspects of mindfulness (observation, non-aversion, nonjudgment, letting go). Stressing its usefulness in clinical settings, the scale demonstrated to be able to distinguish between meditators and non-meditators and people with psychosis.

6. The Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale (PHLMS) The PHLMS is a 20-item, bi-dimensional measure assessing distinct components of present-centered awareness and acceptance that is based on both clinical and non-clinical samples without any meditation experience. Cardaciotto, L., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., et al. (2008). The assessment of present-moment awareness and acceptance:

The Philadelphia mindfulness scale. Assessment, 15(2), 204. [link]

Cardaciotto, L., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., et al. (2008). The assessment of present-moment awareness and acceptance: The Philadelphia mindfulness scale. Assessment, 15(2), 204. [link]

7. The 30-item Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI) – The FMI was designed only for use with individuals who had prior exposure to meditation practices that cultivate mindfulness, to the extent that it was developed qualitatively out of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Its intention was to discriminate between novice and expert meditators (Walach et al., 2006). 

Buchheld, N., Grossman, P., & Walach, H. (2001). Measuring mindfulness in insight meditation (vipassana) and meditation-based psychotherapy: The development of the freiburg mindfulness inventory (FMI). Journal for Meditation and Meditation Research, 1(1), 11-34. [link]

Walach, H., Buchheld, N., Buttenmüller, V., et al. (2006). Measuring mindfulness—the freiburg mindfulness inventory (FMI). Personality and Individual Differences, 40(8), 1543-1555. [link]

Kohls, N., Sauer, S., & Walach, H. (2009). Facets of mindfulness–results of an online study investigating the freiburg mindfulness inventory. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(2), 224-230. [link]

8. Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS) – developed as a means of determining effectiveness of Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is a 39-item multi-dimensional scale of interrelated skills related to what one does while practicing mindfulness, and how one does it. The “what” skills include observing (noticing or attending to) current experience, describing (noting or labeling observed experiences) with words, and participating (focusing full attention on current activity); the “how” skills include being nonjudgmental (accepting, refraining from evaluation), being one-mindful (using undivided attention), and being effective (using skillful means) (Baer et al., 2009). 

Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., & Allen, K. B. (2004). Assessment of mindfulness by self-report: The kentucky inventory of mindfulness skills. Assessment, 11(3), 191-206. [link]

Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., Leysen, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1235-1245. [link]

Hansen, E., Lundh, L. G., Homman, A., et al. (2009). Measuring mindfulness: Pilot studies with the swedish versions of the mindful attention awareness scale and the kentucky inventory of mindfulness skills. Cogn Behav Ther, 38(1), 2-15. [link]

Nicastro, R., Jermann, F., Bondolfi, G., et al. (2010). Assessment of mindfulness with the french version of the kentucky inventory of mindfulness skills in community and borderline personality disorder samples. Assessment, 1-9. [link]

9. Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention Adherence and Competence Scale (MBRP-AC)

Chawla, N., Collins, S., Bowen, S., et al. (2010). The mindfulness-based relapse prevention adherence and competence scale: Development, interrater reliability, and validity. Psychotherapy Research, 4, 1-10. [link]

10. Self-Other Four Immeasurables (SOFI)

Kraus, S., & Sears, S. (2009). Measuring the immeasurables: Development and initial validation of the self-other four immeasurables (SOFI) scale based on buddhist teachings on loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Social Indicators Research, 92(1), 169-181. [link]

11. Self-Compassion Scale [Link]

Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223-250. [link]

Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101. [link]

12. Solloway Mindfulness Survey – The SMS is offered free to teachers and their students. Teachers can download their students’ SMS measures in order to monitor growth in mindfulness. [Link]

13. Acceptance & Action Questionnaire II – AAQ-II – The AAQ-II was developed in order to establish an internally consistent measure of ACT’s model of mental health and behavioral effectiveness. Acceptance was the term used to positively describe this model underlying Acceptance & Commitment Therapy; thus, it is defined as the willingness to experience (i.e., not alter the form, frequency, or sensitivity of) unwanted private events, in the pursuit of one’s values and goals. [Link]

Hayes, S.C., et al., Acceptance and commitment therapy: model, processes and outcomes. Behav Res Ther, 2006. 44(1): p. 1-25. [Link]

See the following link for comprehensive review of current research in the area of mindfulness [Link]

Most of these are still under development. Not all of these scales do a very good job at clearly measuring what is historically referred to by Sati or Smrti.

A review of the self-report scales can be found here [Link]

What is Mindfulness you may ask? Read [Here]

Mindfulness originates from a deeply rooted system of contemplative practice. It is imperative that one consider these cultural and historical concepts in trying to define or operationalize Mindfulness.

One MUST understand the cultural sensitivities involved in the introduction of these practices and therefore encourage you all to approach “mindfulness” and “contemplative practice” as a respectful anthropologist would treat an encounter with an indigenous culture (as Jon K-Z would say), while being careful to not unwittingly ignore or dismiss the deepest and most subtle features of such practices.

Good Luck! I look forward to discussion if needed.