You enter your living room with a large bag of potato chips in hand and sit down in your favorite chair. Your intention is to watch a new movie that you have been excited to see while enjoying your favorite crispy snack. You place one chip in your mouth and savor it. It is followed by a second, and then a third. You are enthralled by the movie that is full of action and suspense. About half way through the movie something interesting happens; your hand reaches the bottom of the chip bag and you feel crumbs.
What happened!? Not only are you surprised that you ate the entirety of the bag, but you feel guilty and a little sick. How many of us have experienced this type of mindless eating? Using principles and examples from cognitive psychology research, the relationship between attention and mindful eating will be explored. In addition, possible childhood obesity interventions that incorporate mindful attention will be introduced.
Attention Attention has been defined as the process of concentrating on specific features of the environment, or on certain thoughts or activities (Goldstein, 2008). This concentrating on specific elements of the environment also means that some features of the environment are also ignored. Connecting this to the potato chip example above, you were devoting almost all of our attention to the thrilling movie, while ignoring the amount of chips you consumed. While the environment presents a plethora of sensory information, our brains as humans are able to direct attention to a specific sensory input or activity. With that said, attention seems to be highly related to what we are aware of; attention involves engagement of the mind and how this engagement affects our experience (Goldstein, 2008). One interesting concept from cognitive psychology research that relates to attention is the idea of task load. Task load attempts to explain how much of a person’s cognitive resources are being employed to attend to a specific task (Lavie, 1995). Lavie (1995) differentiates between high-load tasks and low-load tasks; high-load tasks using mostly or all of an individual’s mental resources leaving little space for more tasks and low-load tasks using few mental resources which allows the individual to handle other tasks. An example of a high-load task would be a student memorizing spelling words for an exam. The student is using almost all of her attention to practice her spelling words and her intention is not to be distracted. Alternatively, a low-load task could be sitting on a park bench watching people pass by. This requires little mental resources and the individual may easily become distracted if someone started talking to him in the situation. Our ability to attend to different tasks or stimuli in the environment is determined by load and this should be considered while exploring the cognitive factors related to mindful eating. Mindfulness All you need to do is to walk down a checkout aisle at your local supermarket to find information about mindfulness these days. There are many books, phone apps, and videos that are easily accessible for many people to practice mindfulness and reap the benefits of this timely practice. Mindfulness (also known as mindful attention) can be thought of as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2006). Mindfulness is a form of mediation and can be performed by adults and children alike. In line with traditional Buddhist views of mindfulness, it is broadly agreed that clearly formulated mental training, usually referred to as meditation, is required for developing and improving levels of mindfulness (Chiesa & Malinowski, 2011; Malinowski, 2013). The essence of mindfulness seems to be paying attention in the moment and not judging what happens within an environment or experience. Papies, Barsalou, and Custers (2012) have further described that mindfulness involves paying sustained attention to one’s ongoing sensory, cognitive, and emotional experience, without giving in to our natural tendency to react, elaborate, or evaluate (Bishop et al., 2006). There has been an amazing surge in the dissemination, use, and acceptance of mindfulness based practices in recent years (Malinowski, 2013). This increase in awareness and utilization has been primarily driven by the growing evidence that mindfulness can have beneficial effects on mental and physical well-being (Rogers, Ferrari, Mosely, Lang, & Brennan, 2017; Shonin, Gordon, & Griffiths, 2015). This practice has been used to treat many emotional, physical, and mental ailments from severe depression to obesity. There have even been large scale school-based mindfulness interventions to address problem behavior in the classroom (Johnstone et al., 2016) as well as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) interventions within the military to treat symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Vujanovic, Niles, Pietrefesa, Schmertz, & Potter, 2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of mindfulness-based approaches is important, but another line of research attempts to determine and understand the neurophysiological and psychological processes underlying this approach. Many theoretical possibilities have been presented to explain the causal mechanisms of mindfulness. One possible theoretical explanation for the effectiveness of mindfulness is the development of resilience and self-determination (Davis & Kurzban, 2012). Another proposed explanation of why mindfulness is an effective treatment could be the incorporation of self-regulation and the monitoring of emotional and cognitive states when practicing mindfulness (Zylowska et al., 2007). Although these theoretical models can be applied to specific outcomes of various mental and physical ailments, they are weak in explaining the broader cognitive processes that are underlying mindfulness. The Liverpool Mindfulness Model A framework that has incorporated a key component of cognitive psychology, the development of attentional skills, is the Liverpool Mindfulness Model (see Figure 1; Malinowski, 2013). This model aimed to provide a framework to incorporate the core elements of mindfulness that could be used for future research. It attempts to describe to the underlying cognitive processing that are involved in mindfulness. The first tier of the model shows the driving motivational factors of why a person would engage in mindful training (tier 2). The third tier summarizes the core mental processes that are associated with mindful thinking, which are emotional and cognitive flexibility that stem from the enhancement of attentional functions. This leads to a more stable mental stance (tier 4) which in turn results in positive outcomes like health promoting behavior (acting with awareness, acting flexibly, acting autonomously) along with enhanced physical and mental wellbeing. Although this model seems to be comprehensive with implied interactions and causal mechanisms, further research is warranted to test these relationships using the model as a framework to guide this exploration (Malinowski, 2013). The main aspect of the model, and in mindfulness, is the training of attention skills. Throughout scientific literature related to mindfulness, two forms of training related to attention skills are commonly explained; Focused Attention (FA) and Open Monitoring (OM) meditation practices (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008a). FA meditation entails the participant directing and sustaining attention on a specific object. For instance, a person could focus primarily on the breath and paying attention to all the sensations that are associated with breathing. When the mind wanders or the participant is faced with distractions, attention is directed back to the selected object (i.e. breath sensations). This type of attention training also involves a cognitive reappraisal of the distractor or equating the distractor to just a thought or saying, it’s ok to be distracted (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008b). OM meditation on the other hand does not include a specific focus on objects, but rather maintain a non-reactive meta-cognitive monitoring in which a participant is able to label the experience they find themselves in nonjudgmentally (Lutz et al., 2008b). This form of attention training is broader and is almost a check-in with the cognitive, emotional and physical reactions to various stimuli that are presented to an individual. It is evident that an essential component of mindfulness is attention and the resulting positive outcomes seem to stem from the acquisition of heightened attentional awareness. The central role of attention in mindfulness has also been heavily researched by cognitive neuroscientists. Cognitive neuroscientists often refer to three interrelated attentional networks in the brain; the alerting, orienting, and executive control networks (Fan, McCandliss, Fossella, Flombaum, & Posner, 2005; Posner & Rothbart, 2006). These neural networks have been thought to promote cognitive functions that have been related to mindfulness including sustained attention (the ability to stay focused on the processing of a particular stimuli) and attentional control (an indicidual’s capacity to pay attention to one thing, while ignoring another). Although it goes beyond the scope of this manuscript, it is important to note that research using various methodological approaches has concluded that mindfulness can result in changes in neural activity related to attentional functions (Malinowski, 2013).Mindful Eating Let’s return to the movie and potato chips example explained earlier. A key function of eating all the chips in the bag was that you were not paying attention to eating, but rather you were paying attention to watching the movie. In this example, eating became a secondary action that could be considered mindless eating. Satiety cues were being ignored as you were mindlessly eating the chips. This is a common occurrence among those that struggle to manage a healthy weight and is often coupled with mindless impulses toward more attractive foods, which can include high sugar, high fat, or high carbohydrate levels and/or highly processed, tasty foods. What if an individual could learn attentional cognitive skills through mindfulness to combat these impulses and the ignoring of satiety cues? Before the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions on weight management is discussed, the relationship between mindful attention and mindless impulses will be discussed (Papies, Barsalou, & Custers, 2011a). On a daily basis we are faced with a constant barrage of attractive food choices in our living environment. Many times we unconsciously react to stimulating, high caloric food choices that can make it difficult to manage weight or feel a sense of self-control. Food that we personally find attractive has been shown to trigger automatic eating, sometimes overeating, even though it goes against our better judgement (Papies, Stroebe, & Aarts, 2007; Zheng, Lenard, Shin, & Berthoud, 2009). Some cognitive research has found that when someone is presented with an attractive food, they experience spontaneous and unconscious mental simulations or reenactments that they encounter while actually eating that specific food (Papies, Barsalou, & Custers, 2011b). Let’s say someone walks into a party and they see a pepperoni pizza. Before they even have time to realize, they are simulating themselves consuming the pizza in their minds as well as feeling the pleasure or reward that comes with eating one of their favorite foods (Barsalou, 2009; Simmons, Martin, & Barsalou, 2005). Mindful Attention and Impulsive EatingThis unconscious impulse relating to consuming attractive foods can be problematic and could lead to mindlessly eating. Some research has been conducted to test whether mindfulness, specifically observing thoughts and reactions with mindful attention when presented with attractive food can prevent impulsive eating. Three specific studies will be summarized to show the effectiveness of mindfulness training in preventing impulsive responses associated with consuming attractive foods (Papies et al., 2011b). All three studies conducted by Papies et al. (2011) aimed to compare the reactions to attractive foods of participants that received a small mindfulness instruction with a control group that viewed the picture without mindful attention. It is important to note that all participants were not practiced in mindfulness or meditation and did not complete a prior mindfulness training. Study #1. Participants in the mindful attention group were told that they would be viewing a set of pictures (pictures of daily life, including attractive and neutral foods) and that they should consider their thoughts and reactions as constructions of the mind, which could appear and disappear at any time. They were also told to that their reactions may differ from those of someone else and that they are not part of the picture, but rather what the mind made up in that moment. Participants were then shown 20 pictures and asked to simply observe their reactions and thoughts about the pictures, without suppressing or avoiding them. Participants in the control condition were told that they would be participating in a visual perception task and that they should completely experience the pictures that they would see. The pictures were then presented to them in a similar manner as the mindful attention condition. Then, participants were asked to practice mindful attention during an approach-avoidance task where their response latencies were assessed when reacting to attractive food pictures. Control participants went through the same task, but were asked to completely experience the pictures as before. The participants viewed attractive or neutral food pictures in a blue or purple frame and moved the picture toward themselves or away based on the frame’s color. The results of this indicated that control participants had an approach bias toward attractive but not toward neutral food. In contrast, mindful attention participants did not have an approach bias toward attractive food and even had a slight approach bias toward neutral food. Study #2. The procedure in the second study was completely similar to that of the first except for a few small adjustments. Instead of having the control condition completely experience the pictures, they were asked to simply look at the pictures. Also, the researchers wanted to test if the mindful attention affect was short lived, so they including a demanding distraction test before the approach-avoidance task. In addition, a second control condition was used that was only given the approach-avoidance task in order to see if whether the approach bias to attractive food develops during the exposure to the pictures or is rather preexisting. The results were similar to that of the first experiment; participants in the mindful attention group did not experience an approach bias while those in the control group did. Also, in this study it was found that an approach bias for attractive food developed during the exposure to food items. However, the creation of food impulses can be prevented by mindfully observing one’s reaction during this exposure. Study #3. This study was again similar to the previous two studies. Participants in the mindful attention condition were presented with novel pictures of attractive and neutral food, of which they had not practiced mindful attention in the training phase. This was done to test whether mindful attention works as a memory-based effect or whether it actually changes the participant’ mindset. The results indicated that the participants in the mindful attention condition did not show an approach bias for either the trained or novel food pictures. This suggests that participants that practiced mindful attention had changed automatic responses toward both sets of food pictures. These three studies present evidence that mindfully paying attention to your thoughts and reactions when presented with attractive foods can diminish automatic impulsive responses. The authors conclude that that the effect of mindful attention spreads to similar stimuli, oralternatively, that mindful attention induces a mind-set which diminishes impulsive responses to food (Papies et al., 2011b). Although the studies did not use real food in their task, it appears that mindfulness training seems to bring more attentive awareness when someone is faced with attractive food rather than falling in to the trap of unconscious impulses. Mindfulness: An Intervention for Childhood Obesity