NIMH Symposium Tackles Mind-Wandering, Mindfulness
The human mind can at one moment wander miles away and at the next be acutely conscious of the present. At one moment, it can be intensely aware of one’s surroundings, while at another look deep within. This continual seesaw between external and internal events is supported by two tightly linked cognitive functions—attention and awareness. How we attend and what we are aware of affect how we feel, how we evaluate choices, how we make decisions, how we interact with others, how we learn, etc.
Recently, a symposium was held at NIH to tie together the basic science research topics of attention and awareness and highlight their relevance in mental health and daily life. “From Mind-Wandering to Mindfulness: The Role of Attention and Awareness,” the meeting held Mar. 5-6, was organized by staff scientist Dr. Shruti Japee and research fellow Dr. Marine Vernet of the section on neurocircuitry in NIMH’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.
Attention and awareness are fundamental to many aspects of cognitive neuroscience, including visual perception, decision-making, goal-directed actions, memory, learning and emotion processing. In addition, mind-wandering and mindfulness are important current research topics in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. For example, mind-wandering has been shown to reduce reading performance and negatively affect mood.
On the other hand, there is growing evidence of the positive impact of mindfulness on the brain and several researchers are exploring meditation as a treatment strategy for mental disorders.
The symposium invited experts in each of these fields to present work and promote dialogue among basic and clinical research scientists on topics of mutual interest.
On the first morning, speakers discussed neural states, dynamics and pathways underlying conscious and unconscious visual processing and how humans automatically and implicitly model other people’s attention.
In the afternoon, invitees discussed the neural correlates of consciousness and how this can be leveraged in patients with disorders of consciousness. Dr. Hakwan Lau (University of Hong Kong/University of California, Los Angeles) proposed the use of neurofeedback to investigate the content of awareness during mind-wandering and mindfulness. Dr. Amishi Jha (University of Miami) wrapped up the day with a presentation on the use of mindfulness-based training to promote cognitive resilience in elite military cohorts.
Day 2 began with Dr. Naotsugu Tsuchiya (Monash University, Australia) proposing that the content of consciousness is richer than typically assumed. Dr. Marvin Chun (Yale University) showed ways in which resting state fMRI network connectivity could be leveraged to reconstruct the focus of attention and quantify sustained attention. The symposium was rounded out by speakers who summarized the use of mindfulness to reduce anxiety, stress and mind-wandering, enhance cognitive performance and modify functional connectivity in the brain.
More than 100 researchers from NIH and local institutions including Georgetown University, George Washington University, George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia attended the meeting.