A Neurocognitive Perspective of Mindfulness in Adolescence
Interest in applications of mindfulness-based approaches with adults has grown rapidly in recent times, and there is an expanding research base that suggests these are efficacious approaches to promoting psychological health and well-being. Interest has spread to applications of mindfulness-based approaches with children and adolescents, yet the research is still in its infancy. I aim to provide a preliminary review of the current research base of mindfulness-based approaches with children and adolescents.
While the confusion over “mindfulness” arises from the breadth of contexts in which the term is used, this breadth itself stands in tension with a drive toward formulating a single, universally applicable definition. A further source of confusion, perhaps supported by the nascent nature of this field, has been the need to frame mindfulnessbased interventions in ways that are maximally compatible with clinical medicine and psychology, such that these practices are seen through the lens of current scientific thinking and are articulated in ways that can be readily communicated to potential patients, healthcare providers, and researchers. Although clearly crucial to basic and clinical research, this restricted perspective increases the risk of misrepresenting (or missing altogether) the active ingredients underlying the potentially transformative effects of these practices whose techniques emerge in a context broader than clinical medicine, psychology or neuroscience. These various contextual features all relate to “task-set maintenance or retention,” a final shared aspect of mindfulness practices that is not articulated separately in our model. In its broadest sense, this global feature of mindfulness involves the capacity to sustain the context created by physical posture, affective tone, and axiological concerns. It also includes the retention of the specific practice instructions for formal meditation.
Broadly defined, self-regulation refers to regulation of thoughts, emotions, and behavior in order to achieve a goal or maintain a personal standard (Baumeister and Vohs 2004). Poor self-regulation consistently has been associated with health risk behaviors, including drug use (e.g., cigarette use, alcohol abuse, illicit drug use), as individuals are thought to engage in risky behaviors because of their inability to self-regulate properly (de Ridder and de Wit 2006). Recent neuroscience research suggests that adolescents in particular are at higher risk for drug use and abuse because of their brain-related developmental vulnerability to poor regulation (Steinberg 2010; Spear 2010). The neural networks in the brain responsible for self-regulation show suboptimal development during adolescence compared to adulthood (Chambers et al. 2003; Spear 2010). Due to the still maturing neurocircuitry, especially the networks involving prefrontal cortical regions, adolescents tend to show poorer inhibitory control (i.e., ability to control a prepotent response) and higher impulsivity and risky decision-making tendencies. Further, developmental changes in certain brain regions (e.g., nucleus accumbens) related to reward motivation are likely to place adolescents at increased risk for using drugs. This is because the changes in the motivational regions of the brain are likely to result in increased sensitivity to the rewarding effects of drugs and decreased sensitivity to drugs’ aversive effects (Spear 2010). Thus, risk-taking tendencies during adolescence tend to outweigh self-control abilities, which are undergoing development owing to the strengthening and refinement taking place in the brain networks responsible for executive control functions.
In essence, the term “mindfulness” was derived from the Buddhist concept of “sati,” which refers to refined skills of awareness, attention, and remembering. In the secular context, Bishop et al. proposed a two-component model of mindfulness, involving “self-regulation of attention” (maintained on immediate experience) and “attitudinal orientation” (curiosity, openness, and acceptance). They described mindfulness as a form of mental training that develops a reflective rather than reflexive mode of responding to internal and external events. Later extended the model to include a third component: intention, which links back to the earlier notion of “remembering,” in addition to attention and attitude.
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