Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mindfulness Practice Can Reduced Depressive Rumination

One of the more troubling issues in depression is rumination, getting stuck on thoughts or feelings that generate the depressive state, for example, times we have failed, or felt unloved, or any number of other wounds that have never healed.

This new study from Frontiers in Cognition looked at how mindfulness practice might ameliorate this tendency. They found that even an 8-week mindfulness training program can reduce rumination through a cognitive process known as backward inhibition (BI), a form of "task switching." Related to this, they contrasted BI with competitor rule suppression (CRS), another aspect of task switching, but which "involves episodic memory tagging of information that is currently conflicting rather than active inhibition."

In essence, with CRS the rumination would have been suppressed, but with BI the mechanism is more direct and more "clean." BI involves the "inhibition of information that has been relevant in the past and is no longer relevant in the present moment." So rather than suppressing the rumination (CRS), mindfulness helps us move beyond the feelings/thoughts on which we were stuck.

“Off with the old”: mindfulness practice improves backward inhibition
Department of Psychology, Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel
*Correspondence: Jonathan Greenberg, Department of Psychology, Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel.

Mindfulness practice has been linked to reduced depressive rumination and described as involving inhibition of information that has been relevant in the past and is no longer relevant in the present moment. Backward inhibition (BI) is considered to be one of the purest measures of task set inhibition, and impaired BI has been linked to depressive rumination. BI was contrasted with Competitor Rule Suppression (CRS), which is another phenomenon observed in task switching, yet one which involves episodic memory tagging of information that is currently conflicting rather than active inhibition. Although similar at baseline level, a randomly assigned group (n = 38) who underwent an eight session mindfulness training program exhibited improved BI but not CRS compared to a waiting list group (n = 38). Findings indicate that mindfulness improves the specific component of task set inhibition, which has previously been linked to reduced rumination. Implications regarding the potential role of task set inhibition in mediating between mindfulness and reduced rumination, as well as the role of mindfulness in “being in the present moment” are discussed.
Full Citation: Greenberg J, Reiner K and Meiran N (2013) “Off with the old”: mindfulness practice improves backward inhibition. Front. Psychology 3:618. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00618

Here is the introduction - it offers more explanation of the mechanisms involved and gives a solid background for the study. The whole article is available to read online or to download as a PDF.


In a changing environment, the ability to inhibit thoughts and actions which are no longer relevant is crucial for our everyday functioning and well being. Impairments in such inhibition may result in perseveration, being “stuck” in a certain way of thinking, and responding inappropriately rather than adhering to the current situation demands (Mayr and Keele, 2000). Responding to a new situation or task requires deactivation of mindsets adopted in the recent past in favor of the currently relevant mindsets (seeKoch et al., 2010).

In this paper we propose that mindfulness practice is a method which may promote such inhibition. Mindfulness has been defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Although various definitions and conceptualizations have been proposed for mindfulness (see Chambers et al., 2009; Chiesa and Malinowski, 2011; Chiesa and Serretti, 2011;Grossman and Van Dam, 2011, for discussion), there is relative agreement that mindfulness involves both self regulation of attention to the present moment, and an orientation of openness and acceptance toward it. Such attendance to the present moment seems likely to involve inhibition of past thoughts and representations (Bishop et al., 2004).

Inhibition has been proposed to be one of the three cognitive processes termed “executive functions,” with the other two being mental set shifting and information updating and monitoring (Miyake et al., 2000). These functions are considered to enable the exertion of cognitive control and flexible adaptation, typically in novel or otherwise highly demanding contexts. Participants undergoing mindfulness training exhibited equivalent performance to control groups in a mental set shifting paradigm (Anderson et al., 2007) and in an internal switching paradigm requiring both set shifting and working memory updating (Chambers et al., 2008), yet outperformed controls on a multiple perspective images task requiring participants to switch between visual perspectives (Hodgins and Adair, 2010). Studies which have addressed the relation between mindfulness and various processes which may involve the component of inhibition have yielded an even more mixed pattern of results (see Chiesa and Serretti, 2011). People undergoing mindfulness training have been shown to exhibit superior performance relative to control groups on the Hayling task, requiring participants to complete sentences with unrelated and nonsensical words (Heeren et al., 2009), verbal fluency (Heeren et al., 2009; Zeidan et al., 2010), tasks requiring participants to respond to an arrow pointing to either the same or opposite direction as flanking arrows (Hodgins and Adair, 2010, in long term meditators; Tang et al., 2007), and on the Einstellung water jar task, which examines the degree to which participants are able to identify and utilize simple and obvious solutions to problems following repeated experience with a long and complex solving method (Greenberg et al., 2012). Conversely, no differences were found between mindfulness practitioners and control groups on other measures which may involve inhibitory processes, such as the GoStop paradigm (Heeren et al., 2009), and the continuous performance task (Cusens et al., 2010), both of which require participants to withhold their response whenever a certain signal appears. Additionally, findings regarding the effect of mindfulness on Stroop interference have yielded inconsistent results (see Anderson et al., 2007; Chan and Woollacott, 2007, in long term meditators; Josefsson and Broberg, 2011, in long term meditators; van den Hurk et al., 2010, in long term meditators; Wenk-Sormaz, 2005).

The results described above make it difficult to draw clear conclusions regarding the relation between mindfulness and inhibition. One reason for this difficulty is the clear inconsistency of findings. More importantly, however, is that most if not all of the above findings may be explained by various non-inhibitory accounts such as episodic memory retrieval, persistent activation, resolution of conflict between various possible routes, and rule guided algorithmic processing (see MacLeod et al., 2003; Neill, 2007; Koch et al., 2010). For example, while the Stroop effect has been linked to cognitive control and inhibition (Roelofs, 2003) it has also been described as the paradigmatic example for automaticity (Tzelgov, 1997).

In this paper, we focus on the relation between mindfulness practice and two measures related to task set suppression, which are both identified within the same task switching paradigm. An important advantage of the fact that the two measures are taken from the same paradigm is that whatever differences are found between them could not be attributed to superficial differences between paradigms. Critically, while one of the measures taps active online inhibition of information that has been relevant in the past but is no longer relevant, the other measure taps (mostly) episodic tagging of currently competing information. We will hereby briefly describe each of these measures.

Backward Inhibition (BI, Mayr and Keele, 2000), also referred to as n-2 repetition cost (Koch et al., 2010), can only be assessed in paradigms involving switching between three or more tasks. When switching from Task A to Task B, Task A is thought to be inhibited. In this case, Task A-related information was relevant in the past, but now it is no longer relevant since Task B became relevant instead. Therefore, switching back to task A following its recent inhibition (A→B→A task sequence) should be more difficult than switching to task A without its recent inhibition (e.g., following a C→B→A task sequence) because of the residual active inhibition of Task A. The relative difference between sequences ABA and CBA in reaction time and/or accuracy is thought to reflect the degree to which Task Set A was actively inhibited in the previous trial (Mayr and Keele, 2000; Koch et al., 2010). As mentioned above, to date, the only account of the n-2 repetition cost is based on inhibition (Koch et al., 2010). Therefore, examining the influence of mindfulness practice on BI is especially revealing in this respect. Moreover, BI indexes the inhibition of things that have been relevant in the recent past, presumably making it possible to focus on the current task. Thus, aside from being a pure measure of inhibition, unlike most of the other measures that have been used thus far, the type of inhibition tapped by BI (of previously relevant information) is especially relevant to mindfulness, due to its emphasis on focusing on the present moment.

Although, to our knowledge, the relation between BI and mindfulness practice has not been examined, we posit that it is likely that the two are positively related. Our reasoning is twofold. First, like BI, mindfulness has been claimed to involve inhibition of thoughts and representations that were relevant in the past but are no longer relevant (Bishop et al., 2004). Impairments in task set inhibition (i.e., using no longer relevant task sets) may be taken as a form of being “stuck in the past” rather than attending to the present moment. A second reason for this assumed relation is that both mindfulness (Ramel et al., 2004; Kingston et al., 2007; Chambers et al., 2008; Heeren et al., 2009; Michalak et al., 2011; Campbell et al., 2012) and BI (Whitmer and Banich, 2007; Whitmer and Gotlib, 2012) have been linked to reductions in depressive rumination, thereby further implying a possible link between the two phenomena.

The second measure which we examined is Competitor Rule Suppression(CRS; Meiran et al., 2010, 2011b). In order to explain CRS we must first explain the concept of a competing rule. A competing rule is a rule that generates a response that competes with the correct response. Take for example an experimental trial in which the relevant task rule is Gender (requiring a male-female decision) and indicating the right key as the correct response. Any task rule (such as Hair Color) that would implicate the left key as the correct response would thus be defined as “competing rule.” Suppression, according to this postulation, is evident if the previously competing rule becomes the relevant one in the following trial. Thus, CRS is computed by comparing performance (RT and accuracy) on trials in which the current task rule was a competing task rule in the previous trial with all other trial types, in which the current task rule was not the competing one in the previous trial (including trials in which another rule was competing). A recent study by Hsieh et al. (2012) demonstrated that CRS is not primarily accounted for by residual active inhibition of competing rules. Instead, it seems to mostly reflect the tagging of currently conflicting rules as rules that should not be processed when storing the processing episode in memory. When the tagged rules become relevant in the following trial, they are retrieved with the “do-not-process” tag, thereby impairing performance. Thus, BI and CRS differ in two aspects. While BI reflectsresidual active inhibition that took place in the previous trial, CRS reflects “do-not-process” tagging of currently competing rules. Thus, while Both BI and CRS may be seen as phenomena promoting attendance to the present moment, they do so in a different way, with the former involving active inhibition, which has previously been linked to mindfulness (e.g.,Bishop et al., 2004), and the latter involving episodic memory tagging of currently competing information.

The aim of the current paper was to examine whether mindfulness specifically improves inhibition of no longer relevant mindsets. If so, participants undergoing a mindfulness training program should exhibit improved BI. If mindfulness practice involves tagging of past information as irrelevant in episodic memory rather than its inhibition, participants undergoing a mindfulness training program should exhibit improved CRS but not improved BI. To examine this issue, we compared two randomly assigned groups of non-meditators: a group that underwent eight sessions of mindfulness training (“mindfulness”), and a “waiting list” group. Groups were compared on a measure of BI and CRS both before and after mindfulness training of the mindfulness group.
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