In a 2012 Swiss study, researchers Friese, Messner, and Shaffner tested whether a brief period of meditation would lessen the depletion effects of self-control that have been described by Roy Baumeister. Their subject pool was from a group of people taking a three-day introductory meditation seminar. In this training, participants learned to become more aware of the subtleties of their breath and sensations of their body and to notice non-judgmentally what felt comfortable or uncomfortable in their lives.
The researchers approached participants at the end of their 2nd day at the seminar and asked the experimental group to perform an emotional regulation task, then to meditate for five minutes. Then the participants performed a second attentional-control task, meant to tax self-control resources. The meditators did not show self-control depletion effects on the second task compared to a non-meditating group. All participants had attended the seminar.
This is the first study I’ve seen that actually tests the effects of a brief period of meditation on self-control ability. Previous work has shown that trait mindfulness is associated with better self-control. This study was looking at the immediate effects of state mindfulness.
Mindful Self-Regulation versus Self-Control
In a 2007 paper, Brown and colleagues describe their concept of mindfulness as it differs from self-control. They give an amusing example to illustrate their point:
“A student with a large pimple on her nose comes into a professor’s ofﬁce, and his attention is likely to be drawn to her prominent blemish. In a self-controlled mode of regulating his attention, thoughts, emotions, and verbal behavior, he will invoke one or more preconceived, socially-prescribed standards of conduct that may dictate avoidance of this sight so that he can properly focus on the conversation. He may redirect his attention, perhaps to the student’s eyes, or even to a spot on the wall above her head, with this goal in mind, and will periodically self-assess to see how well he is meeting his standard(s) of behavior.”
In contrast, they describe a possible mindful self-regulation as allowing the professor to non-judgmentally attend to the student. Since his attentional capacity is not compromised by focusing on whether he is adhering to a particular standard of conduct, he can choose his behavior rather than being driven by what he feels he ought to do.
How does mindfulness work?
According to a 2011 Buddhist model of mindfulness designed by Grabovich and colleagues in British Columbia, mindfulness breaks our usual perceptive cycle. Normally, we become briefly aware of a sensation, either something that comes into our senses or a cognition in the mind. This happens so fast that we have dozens of sensations in the space of a second. With this awareness comes a “feeling tone” of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Pleasant feelings give rise to desire, while unpleasant ones create aversion. There is a distinction here: the desire or aversion is not in response to the object itself, but in response to the feeling tone that it engenders.
Thoughts that occur in response to a desire or an aversion carry their own feeling tone, and more thoughts occur in response to those. Because the awareness of the sensations is so fleeting, it’s easy for this mental proliferation to become habitual. According to the model, it is this habitual attachment and aversion that causes suffering.
When we’re regulating, we’re trying to achieve a goal of some sort, either a desire for something to come about (desire), or a desire for something not to come about (aversion). Could it be that when we are experiencing self-control depletion, we are experiencing some form of suffering?
In this model, mindfulness is defined as a moment-by-moment observing of impermanence, suffering, and not-self. In other words, mindfulness involves noticing the impermanence of sensations and feeling tones, the suffering caused by habitual desire or aversion, and the idea that none of the sensations, desires, or aversions create the self. Thus observing can break the chain of thought, the habit, and eventually, the suffering.
The acceptance or non-judgment that is brought to the practice reduces the negative thoughts that might otherwise make the practice itself a source of aversion. Additionally, the authors state, “acceptance helps relax the attention and allows rapid, discrete sensations to be more easily noticed and followed during mindfulness practice.” Basically, this harkens back to Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory that positive emotion relates to expansive use of attention, while negative emotions narrow attention. Acceptance allows for ease of noticing.
How does this apply?
While this makes some sense to me, what really brought it home was revamping my understanding of what mindfulness really is. The most helpful explanation I’ve come across is Sharon Salzberg’s concept that mindfulness is noticing. This small adjustment in definition allowed me to more easily see why meditation is useful.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s take the example practice that begins by focusing on the breath. When a thought comes into mind, you notice it, and then bring your attention back to the breath. Mindfulness is in the noticing. Maybe I notice that I like a certain type of breath pattern better than another. This is an attachment to that type of breath. I might also notice that my breath occurs without my trying, separating my breath from my self (not-self). Mindfulness is not that I can stay focused on a sensation. Instead, when a thought or feeling arises, I notice. The breath itself is a point of concentration, so that when a thought or feeling comes into mind, I’m able notice it.
To apply this to self-control, let’s look at another example. Let’s say I’m trying to eat healthier food, but I am presented with a cookie. The unmistakable smell of homebaked food wafts through the air, and I’m smitten by the perfect sheen of the chocolate morsels, indicating a soft, warm, meltiness. These sensations might not be cognitive, but I have some awareness of them, and they are a trigger, creating the desire to eat the cookie. Mindfully, I notice these desires, which immediately removes me from them. Now I’m busy noticing instead of desiring.
Basically, instead of thinking and feeling, one is noticing. Meditation is the practice of noticing.
Meditation as a Self Control Exercise?
The study by Friese and colleagues helps answer a long-frustrating question: If self-control is like a muscle that you can fatigue, and if mindfulness is a way of exercising and thus strengthening self-control, then wouldn’t meditation practice cause fatigue and deplete self-control as well?
Based on this study, in which participants had spent all day at a meditation seminar prior to participating, meditation does not cause depletion. It seems like it could actually replenish self-control resources, but I think there’s room for another possibility: It seems to me that this is not because mindfulness helps build the self-control muscle, but it helps avoid using the self-control muscle altogether. The brief mindfulness meditation in the study might have allowed participants to enter a more mindful state, which they could maintain through the second self-control exercise.
So how does mindfulness improve self-control? It doesn’t. Mindfulness is the path to autonomous regulation. I don’t think it necessarily replenishes a self-control juice (otherwise, meditating for longer should increase the amount, right?) but I think it gets us ready to use the noticing skill in other situations.