A new study published in the Journal of Adolescence tested an 8-week mindfulness training program among a group of adolescent and adult females. The results revealed that both teens and adults showed improvements in reorienting their attention following mindfulness training.
Adolescence is a period of continued brain development, which includes improvements in cognitive control and emotion regulation. It has been proposed that mindfulness training (MT) might help adolescents cultivate these skills. But while MT has been found to improve cognitive control and emotion regulation in adult samples, its effectiveness among youth is less clear.
Since adolescence is marked by heightened emotional reactivity, mindfulness training might be particularly beneficial for this age group. On the other hand, with fewer attentional resources than adults, adolescents might not be fully capable of benefiting from MT. Study author Iroise Dumontheil and her team set out to explore differences in how adults and adolescents would respond to the same mindfulness training.
“The study started in 2012. At the time, there was quite a lot of hype about mindfulness,” explained Dumontheil, a professor at the University of London and author of “Educational Neuroscience: Development Across the Life Span.”
“It was being implemented in schools but there was very little research evidence of its potential impact on children and adolescents. We were interested in better understanding the specific mechanisms through which mindfulness meditation training may influence cognition, compared to a closely match condition, which was relaxation training in our study.”
“So Dr. Kristen Lyons and Prof. Philip Zelazo, both at the University of Minnesota at the time, and I combined our expertise to study how mindfulness meditation practice may train aspects of attentional control,” Dumontheil said. “Attention towards negative events or stimuli can be disrupted in anxiety, which is why we thought it was an interesting aspect of cognition to focus on. While effects in adults had been relatively consistently demonstrated, there was not much research in youths.”
“We thought it was possible that children and adolescents did not have yet sufficient cognitive or attentional control capacities to be able to complete regular mindfulness meditation practice, and therefore there would not be much benefit, or on the contrary, that the fact that cognitive and attentional control are developing during childhood and adolescence may make these cognitive processes more plastic and susceptible to training, leading to greater benefits.”
The researchers tested an 8-week mindfulness training among a final sample of 26 adolescents (aged 12 to 14) and 17 adults (aged 23 to 33). The participants were randomly assigned to receive a mindfulness training or a relaxation training (RT) that served as an active control condition. Both trainings involved 8 weekly lessons of 90 minutes each, which were led by an experienced instructor and included a discussion component. Participants also completed at-home exercises on a daily basis.
The MT group participated in a mindfulness program called Learning to Breathe, and the RT group learned relaxation skills and techniques. While both trainings were expected to result in positive benefits, the MT was uniquely expected to promote attention reorienting.
Before and after the training, both groups underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while working on an attentional control task and an emotional n-back task. The attentional control task involved reorienting one’s attention away from invalid cues, and the n-back task involved directing attention away from emotional distractor cues.
The results revealed that participants in the mindfulness training group showed improvements in attentional control following the training, while the relaxation group did not. Specifically, the difference in their reaction time to invalid versus valid cues decreased, meaning that participants got better at reorienting their attention. Notably, the results were statistically similar for the two age groups, suggesting that adolescents and adults saw similar attentional control benefits from the MT.
“Our results need to be replicated, because the sample size was small, but the key outcomes were that, first, an 8-week mindfulness meditation training intervention in female participants led to specific rather than broad-ranging benefits,” Dumontheil told PsyPost. “Second, mindfulness meditation training led to improvements in the control of attention, specifically reorienting attention, which is something that is practiced in meditation when the mind wanders and has to be brought back to, for example, the breath. This effect was found to be similar in adolescents and adults.”
Interestingly, adolescents in the MT group also showed decreased activation of the left amygdala when viewing emotional faces. The authors say this could be tentative evidence that female adolescents experience greater benefits from mindfulness meditation than female adults. During adolescence, emotion regulation difficulties are tied to developmental difficulties including mood disorders. Mindfulness training might be an effective method of improving emotion regulation in this vulnerable age group.
“There was some additional evidence that adolescents, but not adults, showed a reduction of processing of emotional distractors, reflected in less activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that responds to emotionally salient information in our environment,” Dumontheil explained. “So overall these results provide information regarding the fact mindfulness meditation training may benefit aspects of cognition in adolescents, and that these benefits are mediated by changes in individuals’ ability to orient their attention.”
Dumontheil also pointed out one finding that surprised the research team.
“We found that adolescents practiced mindfulness meditation training as much as the adult participants, however they practiced the relaxation activities more, and anecdotal feedback suggests they may have experienced more immediate benefits from these activities,” she said. “This may be due to the fact that relaxation activities were more varied than mindfulness meditation activities, and that the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice may only emerge through repeated practice.”
A strength of the study was the active control condition. This allowed researchers to control for any relaxation or expectation effects of the training and hone in on the specific practice of nonjudgmental awareness, which was unique to the mindfulness training.
But Dumontheil noted that “the small sample size is a major caveat of this study.”
“Studies carried out as part of the MYRIAD project have found that adolescents can be reluctant to practice mindfulness meditation exercises, and that class-wide or school-wide mindfulness intervention may be beneficial to overall school climate but not improve adolescents’ mental health or well-being more than standard socio-emotional teaching,” she added. “Mindfulness meditation training may therefore be better suited to implementation with specific adolescents and by well-trained mindfulness teachers.”
The study, “A preliminary neuroimaging investigation of the effects of mindfulness training on attention reorienting and amygdala reactivity to emotional faces in adolescent and adult females”, was authored by Iroise Dumontheil, Kristen E. Lyons, Tamara A. Russell, and Philip David Zelazo.