Meditation practice that focuses on nurturing an awareness of the present may help people overcome problematic habits, according to findings published in the journal Mindfulness. After eight sessions of open monitoring meditation, participants were better at overcoming learned automated responses during a cognitive task.
Automatic behaviors allow us to execute routines and respond quickly to everyday tasks while exhibiting little cognitive effort. However, these learned responses can hold us back by preventing us from adjusting our behavior to a changing environment — leading to inappropriate responses or mistakes. Habits are tough to break, but one practice that might help is meditation.
Meditation teaches the technique of mindfulness, an awareness and attention to the present. Psychology studies have suggested numerous benefits to a regular meditation practice, but it remains unclear how different styles of meditation affect specific cognitive processes. Study authors Thomas Maran and his colleagues conducted an intervention study to compare how the meditation styles of focused attention and open monitoring meditation affect our ability to overcome reflexive behaviors.
A total of 73 adults with no prior meditation experience joined the study and were randomly separated into one of four intervention groups. The first group practiced open monitoring meditation, with a focus on observing passing thoughts and sensations without engaging in them. Two groups practiced focused attention meditation, where they concentrated on fixating and refocusing their attention on either the breath or a candle flame. A final control group was waitlisted to attend a meditation intervention at the end of the study period.
The intervention involved eight instructor-led sessions spread over four weeks. In addition, participants were asked to meditate every day and were provided with guided audio recordings. To measure automatic responding, all participants participated in two tasks — the dot pattern expectancy paradigm, which measures learned automaticity, and the NEXT paradigm, which measures both learned and instructed automaticity.
During the dot expectancy paradigm, participants develop a habit of pressing a particular key on a keyboard, and the task measures their ability to overcome this automated response. Notably, subjects who attended the meditation interventions were better at overriding these learned responses compared to the waitlist group who did not practice meditation. The open monitoring group performed the best, although the difference between the open monitoring group and the focused attention group did not reach statistical significance. Further, the open monitoring group showed more negative responses during trials compared to the focused attention groups, which, according to the study authors, suggests that these participants were questioning their automated behaviors.
For the NEXT paradigm, participants again had to refrain from performing an automatic response, this time to a light on a screen. It was again found that both meditation groups performed better than the waitlist group for overcoming learned automaticity, suggesting that either style of meditation helped participants override their automated responses. And this time, the open monitoring group performed significantly better than the focused attention groups.
Interestingly, none of the meditation interventions were associated with improved ability to overcome instructed automaticity that was not learned through routine. “Meditation training has supported the participants’ ability to overcome erroneous automatic responses in routinized situations that have been executed frequently,” Maran and his colleagues report, “but not in novel ones where the adequate action has merely been explained instead of practiced.”
The authors say open monitoring meditation may be particularly helpful with overcoming reflexive responses since the practice trains individuals to notice but not engage with impulsive thoughts. “When open monitoring practitioners are confronted with a cognitive conflict,” the researchers say, “their improved monitoring ability should make them less prone to allow a repeatedly executed response to dominate other options and to select the appropriate response in its place.”
The study, “Overcoming Automaticity Through Meditation”, was authored by Thomas Maran, Martin Woznica, Sebastian Moder, Marco Furtner, Elias Jehle, Stanislaw Hörner, and Gregor Hugger.