Tuesday, October 21, 2014


A recent study has found that counting breaths has a positive effect on a person’s mindfulness.
The new study, entitled ‘A Mind You Can Count On: Validating Breath Counting as a Behavioral Measure of Mindfulness,’ and published in Frontiers in Psychology, was carried out by the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. The study shows that counting breaths can have a beneficial effect upon both the mind and body.
Daniel Levinson [pictured left], a graduate student at the Waisman Laboratory and lead author of the paper, said he came up with the idea through video games. ‘Part of my research was to try to come up with a game … by playing it, you’d become more mindful,’ Levinson said.
The study participants were asked to push a button on a computer each time they take a breath. This caused them to become much more aware of their breaths. Additionally, the practice of button pushing was a most useful behavioral measure which directly measured the extent or degree of actual mindfulness, the latter being the most important part and object of the study. Levinson had this to say about the matter:
In four independent studies with over 400 total participants, we present the first construct validation of a behavioral measure of mindfulness: breath counting. We found it was reliable, correlated with self-reported mindfulness, differentiated long-term meditators from age-matched controls and was distinct from sustained attention and working memory measures.
Breath following---let along breath counting---is not an essential feature of the ordinary practice of mindfulness. Admittedly, there is indeed such a thing as ‘mindfulness of breathing’ which uses the breath as an actual object of concentration. Certainly, by focusing on the breath it is possible to become aware of the mind’s tendency to jump from one thing to another. However, the form of mindfulness I teach does not involve following the flow of one’s breath or counting the breath but simply being mindfully aware of the breath at a fixed ‘point of touch,’ the latter serving as an anchor when needed.

Levinson says that breath counting is a good way for students to explore what mindfulness is, and I see no reason to disagree with that view. ‘Counting isn't the main focus; it's the experiential awareness of breath,’ Levinson says. However, he goes on to say, ‘Breath counting is not mindfulness; rather, it's a tool for measuring it, much like a thermometer is a tool for assessing the season.’
Lisa Thomas Prince, an outreach specialist at the Waisman Laboratory, is working on a project similar to Levinson’s with kindergarten-aged kids. However, the goals are the same for college students and young children, Prince said. ‘It’s appropriate for 4-and-5-year-olds to the same degree it’s appropriate for college-aged students or anybody. To focus on breath is a really … central practice in mindfulness meditation,’ says Prince.

‘As theorized, we found that skill in breath counting is associated with more meta-awareness, less mind wandering, better mood and greater non-attachment [for example] less attentional capture by distractors formerly paired with reward,’ Levinson said. ‘I’m hoping people will get inspired by this research and use breath counting more to see what the effects of mindfulness are.’

Resource: Levinson DB, Stoll EL, Kindy SD, Merry HL and Davidson RJ (2014). ‘A mind you can count on: validating breath counting as a behavioral measure of mindfulness.’ Front. Psychol. 5:1202. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01202


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