Cognitive Mechanisms of Mindfulness: The Role of Cognitive Flexibility beyond the Cognitive Awareness Effect

This research was conducted as a class project at MEF University and presented by me in 20th National Psychology Congress in Turkey as a poster presentation (KURTULUS A. & CANKAYA B., 2018, November).

Mindfulness was seen as the third big theoretical therapy perspective which is becoming very popular since the last decade. There are many therapy methods including mindfulness, but the current study will take the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) theoretical framework to examine the relationship between cognitive flexibility, metacognitive awareness, and mindfulness. MBCT differs from cognitive therapy in three dimensions. First of all, MBCT values acceptance rather than changing strategies as cognitive therapy. MBCT does not require training in terms of change thinking concepts but highlights the importance of seeing thoughts as thoughts but not a reflection of truth. Lastly, practices meant to show how the negative mindsets affect the body and teach how to discover sensations directly rather than ruminating (Williams, Duggan, Crane, & Fennell, 2006).

Metacognitive awareness and Mindfulness

Metacognitive awareness has two components which are knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition. In this study, the main point will be the first component because the regulation of cognition can overlap with cognitive flexibility in terms of measurement level. Knowledge of cognition includes three components which are declarative knowledge (knowledge of the facts), procedural knowledge (knowledge about how to complete a process), and conditional knowledge (determination of which skills should prefer in which circumstances). Jankowski and Holas focused on a metacognitive model that showed mindfulness is related with high levels of metacognitive awareness and found that mindfulness depends on metacognitive skills and awareness and also has clear influences in terms of improving those skills (Jankowski & Holas, 2014). A study about how these components can be related in terms of the depression showed that vulnerability to depression reduced was related to metacognitive awareness, which means that MBCT reduces depressive relapse by increasing metacognitive awareness (Teasdale, Moore, Hayhurst, Pope, Williams, & Segal, 2002).

Cognitive flexibility and Mindfulness

Cognitive flexibility was defined as a critical executive function that works for adaptation of behaviors as a reaction to environmental changes (Webster, Lamberton, & McConkey, 2016). Basically, it refers to the ability to switch our thinking to another dimension quickly. Moore and Malinowski (2009) found that there was a natural link between mindfulness and cognitive flexibility regardless of meditation practice. Thus, this link was interpreted as mindfulness practices may improve cognitive flexibility as well as many other cognitive abilities. In a review that included many types of studies that use cognitive tasks and neuropsychological technics showed that mindfulness meditations even for eight weeks had a significant positive effect on several executive functions and cognitive abilities (Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011)

Metacognitive awareness and cognitive flexibility were studied in terms of the relationship with mindfulness but separately. Current study purpose to fill the gap in the literature with examining these relationships together, controlling effect of cognitive flexibility on the relationship between metacognitive awareness and mindfulness, and effect of metacognitive awareness on the relationship between cognitive flexibility and mindfulness. Because of the importance of cognitive skills on mindfulness, this study aims to understand if these skills to be a baseline for future studies and the effectiveness of mindfulness practices.

Design

Participant

Participants for the current study will include adult population and there is no expected size for the sample because the study will be online-based. Gender and education level will be asked to control. There will be two conditions which are the control group who have never tried mindfulness practices and the experimental group which currently practices mindfulness. Dispositional mindfulness will be asked for both conditions and data will be tried to collect in a diverse sample.

Measures

Dispositional mindfulness will be measured via MAAS (Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale) design by Brown and Ryan in 2003. It is a 15-item scale with the aim to assess a core characteristic of mindfulness. Scoring the scale is simply computing the average score of answers of the individual in items. Higher scores indicate higher level dispositional mindfulness.

Cognitive flexibility will be measured via a 12-item cognitive flexibility scale which was designed by Martin and Rubin in 1995. The scale has the grading with 1 to 6 Likert scale (1: totally not agree to 6: totally agree) and has 3 subscales which are awareness, willingness, and self-efficacy. Scale’s scoring is basically computing the average score of answers of everyone.

Metacognitive awareness inventory is going to be used to measure an individual’s metacognitive awareness levels. The scale was designed by Schraw and Dennison in 1994 as 1 to 5 Likert scale (1: always wrong to 5: always true). Because of there will be too many questions the inventory was divided to measure only one subscale which is named as “knowledge about cognition” that includes 17 items whereas the total of the scale includes 52 items.

Procedure

The data is collected via the online-based survey. First participants will take the consent form and if they sign they will answer three questionnaires which were introduced in the measures section. After the questionnaires, the debriefing form will be given to participants and be thanked for participation.

Results

Bivariate correlational analysis results showed that age (r(310)=.327, p<.001) and gender (r(315)=-.143, p=.011) of participants were significantly correlated with the dispositional mindfulness. Thus, women had higher mindfulness scores compared to men, and older people had better mindfulness level than younger ones. Demographics which were significantly correlated with dispositional mindfulness were included in the regression analyses as control variables.

The results of multiple regression indicated that all predictors such as age, gender, metacognitive awareness, and cognitive flexibility together, explained 36.8% of the variance [F(4, 294) = 42.757, MSE = 0.219, p < .001]. It was found that cognitive flexibility (β = .369, p < .001), metacognitive awareness (β = .218, p < .001), and demographics [age (β = .178, p < .001) and gender (β = -.129, p =.006)] significantly predicted dispositional mindfulness. Thus, cognitive flexibility explained 9.8% of the variance in dispositional mindfulness when we excluded the controlled variables’ roles.

Another multiple regression showed that age, gender, cognitive flexibility, and metacognitive awareness together explained 28% of the variance in describing level, F(4,294)=28.61, MSE = 0.682, p < .001. Cognitive flexibility explained 12.9% of this variance when the other predictors were controlled.

Discussion

Current study supported the literature in terms of the relationship between mindfulness and metacognitive awareness in a positive way. The study examined the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and a specific executive function which was cognitive flexibility and showed that people who are better cognitive flexibility showed better mindfulness score as well even after controlling for age and gender, and metacognitive awareness level. As a summary, we can say that cognitive flexibility predicted mindfulness trait even when metacognitive awareness was controlled. Also, people with high cognitive flexibility score also was better at describing as a factor of dispositional mindfulness.

References

Chiesa, A., Calati, R., & Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical psychology review, 31(3), 449–464.

Jankowski, T., & Holas, P. (2014). Metacognitive model of mindfulness. Consciousness and cognition, 28, 64–80.

Teasdale, J. D., Moore, R. G., Hayhurst, H., Pope, M., Williams, S., & Segal, Z. V. (2002). Metacognitive awareness and prevention of relapse in depression: empirical evidence. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 70(2), 275.

Vago, D. R., & David, S. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 296.

Webster, J. P., Lamberton, P. H., & McConkey, G. A. (2016). The Toxoplasma gondii Model of Schizophrenia. In Handbook of Behavioral Neuroscience, 23, 225–241.

Williams, J. M. G., Duggan, D. S., Crane, C., & Fennell, M. J. (2006). Mindfulness‐Based cognitive therapy for prevention of recurrence of suicidal behavior. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(2), 201–210.

Psychologist, Psychophysicist & somehow Writer. Writing stories about technology, science, neuroscience, mental health and psychology. www.aychakurtulush.com