Are you aware? Role of meta-awareness and free-moving thoughts in mental flexibility after mindfulness meditation
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Mindfulness meditation (MM) has been shown to improve mental flexibility. However, the processes underlying the benefits are still unknown. This study was conducted to investigate two possible mechanisms responsible for improved flexibility following MM training: mindfulness and meta-awareness. I hypothesized that 1) meta-awareness increases after MM but not in the documentary movie watching control group (MV), 2) free-moving thoughts become more positive after MM, not MV, and 3) free-moving thoughts mediate between meta-awareness and mental flexibility in MM but not MV. Fifty participants underwent eight 20-minute sessions of either MM or MV over three weeks. Participants also completed several cognitive tasks, surveys, and expressive writing task before and after the intervention. Results did not support the first hypothesis that meta-awareness increases after MM. However, there was partial support for the second hypothesis that free-moving thoughts became more positive after MM. The MV group wrote less about social processes and transitioned into a negative state marginally more often than the MM group. The third hypothesis was not supported: free-moving thoughts was not a mediator between meta-awareness and mental flexibility. However, free-moving thoughts was a predictor of cognitive switch cost for the MM group, indicating that as participants were less likely influenced by their thoughts, they could switch between cognitive task sets. The present study demonstrated that MM led to positive shifts in mental states, which was associated with stronger cognitive flexibility. As participants maintained a positive mental state and transitioned to it more easily, their behaviors became more adaptive. These results suggest that mindfulness may be crucial for building emotional resilience and emotion regulation. In conclusion, mindfulness may be a useful tool to help individuals break maladaptive habitual behaviors and form new healthy ones.