Momentarily Mindful: Patterns of Willpower

For my PhD, a rite-of-passage is to write a long scientific paper for other scientists.  Unfortunately, that means to most people, my prelim will sound like technobabble (any Star Trek fans?), so I’m writing a blog post about its main ideas so that everyone can read about them. Since I have recently had some great experiences with mindfulness, I’ll use it as a running example to explain some of the science in my prelim.

View from my lab (well the stairwell by it)-What does this have to do with Mindfulness?

One thing that wasn’t obvious when I started meditation is that “mindfulness” means different things. For example, it can refer to a state of focused attention on the present moment with a gentle, non-judgmental acceptance 12. At first, I thought that my goal was to maintain this Zen state as long as I could and filter out all distractions. With this goal in mind, I promptly failed.

But with some help from some wise people (and Google Scholar), I learned that the key to mindfulness is not trying to control your thoughts, but learning to let them go. You see, every time you catch your mind wandering (as it inevitably will), and return it to the present moment, you are activating a part of your brain called the Cingulate Cortex 3. One of the Cingulate’s jobs is to put the breaks on our autopilot habits and tendencies (like stress drinking coffee), shifting control over to intentionality brain networks that let us act with a clear mind 4. As you repeatedly let go of your thoughts when they wander, you are actually building up your Cingulate’s ability to more easily return to that calm mindful state 5. That is, you are changing patterns of mindfulness in your life.

See, my prelim exam is fundamentally about patterns, and how looking at those can enhance our understanding of our brains. In addition to referring to a psychological or brain state, mindfulness can also refer to a pattern of how easily one drifts back to present moment. To avoid confusion, let’s call the pattern of fluctuations in mindful states executive functioning. People with better executive functioning tend to have an easier time letting go of negative emotions, acting with intentionality, and avoid running on autopilot 6. As you might guess the ability to do those sorts of things is great for your mental health. Its also good for your body as well, as it means you will be better able to stick to your diet and get yourself to the gym. Thinking about it this way, executive functioning is kinda like willpower. With this appreciation of what mindfulness and executive functioning can do for you, what does it mean to think about it as a pattern?

2 things: Number 1 was already mentioned, as the ability to return to a mindful state. If we measured your emotions throughout the day, we could actually calculate a score of how easily you settle into a state of mindfulness and thus your executive functioning. Number 2 is to think about what things promote mindfulness; what scientist’s call coupling. I’m fortunate enough to live in the beautiful Salt Lake City where every time I step outside, I’m greeted with a breathtaking mountain view (such as the picture above). I have gotten in the habit of remembering to be mindful whenever I notice the mountains, so in a way, seeing mountains is coupled with my momentary state of mindfulness. We can use these types of coupling relationships to our advantage in promoting wellness. By giving ourselves little reminders to be mindful (what could your cues be?), we are leveraging coupling patterns to boost our executive functions and willpower.

While I came up with some cool ideas in my prelim exam, and anecdotally they sound reasonable, its important to put some data where my mouth is. That means I need to conduct some studies to look at different kinds of patterns in executive functioning, and how mindfulness goes about promoting that willpower. If I’m actually right (I’m wrong an awful lot lol), then we could use these patterns to help people build healthy mindfulness habits to combat different kinds of mental illness, help people juggle all the pieces of their complex lives, and fully appreciate all that life has to offer. The first step on that journey however, is learning to let go of thoughts as your mind wanders.

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...about the neuroscience of Mindfulness

...about how the Cingulate helps promote willpower




  1. Feldman, G., Hayes, A., Kumar, S., Greeson, J., & Laurenceau, J. P. (2007). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: The development and initial validation of the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised (CAMS-R). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 29(3), 177–190.
  2. Kang, C., & Whittingham, K. (2010). Mindfulness: A Dialogue between Buddhism and Clinical Psychology. Mindfulness, 1(3), 161–173.
  3. van Veen, V., & Carter, C. S. (2002). The timing of action monitoring processes in the anterior cingulate cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(August), 593–602.
  4. Cohen, M. X. (2011). Error-related medial frontal theta activity predicts cingulate-related structural connectivity. NeuroImage, 55(3), 1373–1383.
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  6. Williams, P. G., Suchy, Y., & Rau, H. K. (2009). Individual differences in executive functioning: Implications for stress regulation. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(2), 126–140.