In a new randomized controlled study of 76 college students, Zhou et al. investigated how attention to the present moment relates to brain structure and function. The participants performed a task of mindful attention in a magnetic-resonance-imaging scanner to self-regulate their responses to images of alcohol. “Binge-drinking is a substantial problem on college campuses, making it particularly relevant to study mindfulness as a self-regulatory strategy in college students,” Dale Zhou, the first author of the paper, explains. The researchers measured the effort and stability of neural responses elicited by mindful attention and compared that with natural reactions. They found that when students paid attention mindfully, the activity of brain networks tied to executive functioning, attention and self-regulation altered in stability and energetics. The neural activity refreshed to new patterns at a faster pace, which suggests a mechanism for how mindful attention helps in the recognition of mental events as passing and temporary. In contrast, the default-mode network, linked to mind-wandering, introspection and thinking about the future, exhibits slower-paced activity, as previous work in the field has shown. “Our study provides a novel interpretation of the brain activity elicited by mindful attention that is linked to being present. This fast-paced activity might enable acknowledging present experience as temporary, rather than habitually reacting to events in ways that can prolong their influence through mind wandering and self-referential thoughts, expectations, and emotions,” Zhou adds.
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