Episode 95 :: Britta Hölzel :: Mechanisms of Mindfulness

| December 17, 2011 | 11 Comments

Britta Hölzel

Dr. Britta Hölzel speaks with us about her recent paper about the potential mechanisms of mindfulness.

What are the mechanisms of a mindfulness state? A recent paper suggests, as a starting point of discussion, that four significant components may be Attention Regulation, Body Awareness, Emotion Regulation, and Sense of Self. As we look at the positive benefits of meditation, it is valuable for us to hypothesize about these qualities of the process, as that can help us think creatively about new areas for scientific investigation.

Britta Hölzel, PhD, is a Research Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Giessen in Germany. She received her MA in Psychology from Frankfurt University, and her PhD from Giessen University. She conducts MRI research to investigate the neural mechanisms of mindfulness practice. Her research focuses on the effects of mindfulness practice on attention and emotion regulation as well as on structural changes in the brain. She is a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction instructor, a certified yoga teacher, and has been a dedicated yoga and meditation practitioner for the last 12 years. Recently, she has been involved in projects to adapt mindfulness-based interventions for patients with bipolar disorder.

At the end of this interview, Britta references a brand new study of a colleague, Tim Gard. I’m happy to say that Tim’s work has just been published, and our interview with him about that will be next week’s episode. And on a personal note, I would like to thank our friends in the scientific community for their spirit of collaboration. It is solely due to their open communication and interest that this podcast is able to share their fascinating work in as timely a fashion as we’ve enjoyed. So, Britta, Tim, Katherine, Sara, Cathy, Cliff, Fadel, Philippe, and happily everyone else too numerous to mention by name — thank you for sharing.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Chocolate Safari tea.

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Music for This Episode

Shakuhachi Meditations



The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez’s CD, Shakuhachi Meditations. The tracks used in this episode are:

  • Chaniwa

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Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (11)

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  1. stoky says:

    That’s a great episode!

    I liked how the both of you connected the individual experiences to the corresponding scientific observations, especially in the last part about the pain stimulus and the reaction of experienced meditators.

    P.S.: Even before the episode started I learned something about my mind. I read the title about 10 times (never had time to listen to it), but never recognized the German name (which is pretty obvious). Fascinating how little information the brain actually scans sometime….

  2. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Glad you liked it! Next week will also be interesting, diving into the work Tim has just released.

  3. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    Another fabulous episode! So interesting to hear subjective experiences validated by neuroscience. It really takes meditation to new areas of life with great results.

  4. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    I was particularly interested in her brain research on the “experiential” atypical way of dealing with pain compared to the typical “cognitive distraction” that most people tend to employ.

    I’m reminded of the second insight of the First Noble Truth: dukkha is to be fully known (experienced).

  5. Tom Alan says:

    She touches on some key topics. In behavior modification, self-regulation was programs in which clients kept track of their progress with diaries while overcoming bad habits. The term has come to encompass behavior, thought and emotion. There’s a paper that describes depression in terms of self-regulation failure. My thinking about self-regulation is the analogy of the thermostat. When something is wrong, there should be a self-adjustment. Psychologists talk about avoidance as the arch-enemy of the maladjusted person. It’s a big part of the very successful therapy DBT, developed by former Zen practitioner Marsha Linehan.

  6. Candol says:

    I’m still a bit skeptical. You see i wonder if the findings on the MRI were not just what you’d find if any type of course was studied in the same way. As Britta indicated, they don’t know what the changes represent exactly. So I wondered if you had three programs going instead of using a control who does nothing different. So if the three programs were mindfulness, and another learning and uplifting program. I say this because could it not just be the positive learning environment that is responsible for the changes. Instead of private practice daily of mindfulness meditation, they could be doing some similar concentrative practice such as drawing a la contour drawing which requires acutes observation and concentration. I think in order to see if mindfulness is the key, it should be compared with similar activities, not just nothing.

    The other thing that worries me about these programs and about mindfulness and meditation altogether is to how to keep the practice going. I mean psychologists teach their patients stuff all the time but if its something that requires ongoing effort and discipline it will ultimately fail in most patients (also most people). So there needs to be some work done on how to keep people on the path once the glow of newness has faded a bit.

    I know that’s not Britta’s role but there does need to be some awareness if you ask me amongst all these people that because its not like a pill and disease that is cured, but is an ongoing thing, supports are needed. That’s where the real money should be going.

    And by that i mean training teachers and providing groups and centres. Personally, if mindfulness is as good as most of us seem to believe, i think it should be something that should be provided to the general public for almost nothing. Of course its going to cost someone; someone has to pay but you know maybe the savings will be made in health.

  7. NaturalEntrust says:

    Candol, you know much more about
    the practice if meditation than what I do.

    But I do agree that doing research do
    require that the set up is reliable.

    Medicine testing they do “Double Blind”

    Neither the Doctor/Reseearcher nor
    the patient should know which pill is
    the true pill or the false placebo pill.

    When one do such behavioral things
    like instructing how to meditate then
    it is not easy to do “Double Blind” test.

    They have tried to do such on acupuncture
    in that they had the needles on the wrong place
    on the body or that the needle did not go
    deep enough but felt like if it did. Same pain?

    Still the researcher maybe knew what place
    where the placebo and which place where
    the traditional acu point according to tradition.

    Placebo is a very strong factor in anything
    involving human to human interaction.

    If the teacher have been told that the class
    are bright children with a huge potential
    that priming do tend to make them evaluate
    the responses in ways that makes the children
    do look brighter than they really are. The Teacher
    not knowing them trust the priming positive
    instruction on what to expect from the pupils.

    On the other hand if told them are hard to teach
    anything then the Teacher tend to get less optimal
    result despite it is same children.

    researchers that already trust Mindfulness
    to be effective maybe give that impression
    to those they experiment on? Positive bias?

    One would need to set up a “Double Blind”
    experiment. That is not easy at all.
    But something to strive for to get reliable result

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