As students take a step into another year and another semester, exams and busy schedules, the Mindfulness Center at Brown continues to connect University researchers from diverse areas of study.
The Mindfulness Center’s mission is to “develop research and provide evidence-based mindfulness programs that are inspiring and accessible to communities worldwide,” said Eric Loucks, director of the Mindfulness Center and associate professor of epidemiology, behavioral and social sciences and medicine. Its principal aims are in research, mindfulness programs, training experts in the field and collaborating with other organizations to produce system-wide impacts, he added.
Mindfulness involves increasing people’s awareness of their emotions and bodily reactions so that they may alter their behavior as needed, said Jud Brewer, the director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at the School of Public Health. “Mindfulness training is there to help people live better lives, and that involves changing both physical behavior, … (and)also mental behaviors, like judging ourselves or worrying.”
Since the Center opened in the Jewelry District in 2017, it has connected investigators who incorporate mindfulness into their research, The Herald previously reported. These researchers come from various Brown-affiliated institutions, including the School of Public Health, Warren Alpert Medical School and neighboring hospitals.
A study on the effects of mindfulness on blood pressure was published in November. The results from the clinical trial were part of a larger project funded by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2015, The Herald previously reported. The project team, consisting of researchers from multiple disciplines and universities, conducted systematic reviews on how mindfulness influences self-regulation and self-awareness, Loucks said. He was one of the principal investigators of the study.
If hypertension, or high blood pressure, is not properly controlled — as is the case in about half of people with the condition — it can cause stroke and heart disease, which are “the biggest killers in the world,” Loucks said. The study sought to determine whether mindfulness skills like self-awareness, emotional regulation and meditation could reduce hypertension when applied to medical regimens that affect blood pressure, such as exercise and eating, he added.
Participants of the study, who had been unable to regulate their blood pressure through physical activity, diet or medications alone, underwent nine weeks of mindfulness training. Afterwards, they were asked to incorporate the techniques into other daily behaviors of their choosing, Loucks said. Prior research on the reduction of blood pressure through mindfulness without the application to other behaviors yielded inconsistent, and less significant, findings, Loucks said. But this clinical trial resulted in a significant drop in average blood pressure among the participants, and these decreases were noticeable as early as three months following the program.
Whereas the intention of this first trial was geared towards determining the acceptability and efficacy of the mindfulness interventions, the research team is currently finishing a second, randomly controlled clinical trial for which Loucks hopes to have results by this summer. This study includes a control group that did not undergo mindfulness training — a component that was absent from the first trial. If this subsequent study confirms the results of the November study, the next steps may include improving the efficacy and efficiency of the studied mindfulness techniques, and offering this kind of program to the public, he added.
Director of Integrative Cardiology and Prevention and Associate Professor Monica Aggarwal at the University of Florida, who was not involved in the study, researches the effects of nutrition and lifestyle on cardiovascular health. “Seeing more studies showing … an integrative approach to managing cardiovascular risk factors is excellent,” Aggarwal wrote in an email to The Herald. “I believe we will be seeing more and more studies showing that an integrative approach works in the coming years.”
But “seeing more metabolic parameters of stress and more clinical parameters would have been great,” Aggarwal wrote.
Another principal investigator of this project, Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences, has also researched meditation. Britton directs the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory with Visiting Professor of Religious Studies Jared Lindahl.
After Britton came across a “counterintuitive and surprising” finding in a previous study — that meditation reduced sleep — she has further investigated potential consequences of mindfulness.
As part of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project — the largest study ever conducted on negative meditation experiences — Britton studied meditation teachers and 60 meditators who were experiencing difficulties resulting from meditation, she said. Britton has also been investigating the bodily and mental effects associated with various meditation practices and how outcomes may differ among people with varying personalities or conditions, she added.
From a clinical perspective, Brandon Gaudiano, a psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences, conducts research at Butler Hospital. His work involves the application of acceptance and commitment therapy — an approach that alters people’s behavior using their values — in those with psychotic disorders and depression, Gaudiano said.
He has partnered with Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Psychiatry and Human Behavior David Williams on an ongoing investigation using mindfulness to help increase physical activity in those who have depression, Loucks said.
The Center has been innovative in its incorporation of technologies such as digital therapeutics and functional MRI — an imaging technique that can be used to show how meditation affects brain activity, Brewer said.
In his own lab, Brewer investigates meditation’s impact on the brain and mindfulness apps’ effects on health. For example, the Unwinding Anxiety program used a mindfulness application targeting anxiety, and the results revealed significant reductions in anxiety after a couple of months, he added. The findings illustrate how mindfulness training reduces people’s susceptibility to their emotions, which alleviates anxiety, Brewer said.
Amidst the stresses of college, the free Mindfulness-Based College program at the Mindfulness Center has showed positive results in a clinical trial, Loucks said.
In its research, the Mindfulness Center has also addressed diversity.
After expanding to the west from eastern cultures, wealthy communities have become the primary beneficiary of mindfulness programming, said Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences and of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Jeffrey Proulx.
But Proulx, who joined the Mindfulness Center Sept. 2019, works to bring mindfulness research to underserved populations. Proulx came to the University “because the Mindfulness Center here is one of the premier locations of people who guide the policies of mindfulness around the world,” he said. Proulx, who is Native American, has focused on bringing mindfulness to Native American communities to alleviate prevailing distress and intergenerational trauma, he added. Stress can elevate heart rate, reduce brain volume and negatively impact the immune system, Proulx said.
Unlike other researchers studying mindfulness in Native American communities, Proulx is creating unique interventions for them, he said. His current projects include studies of mindfulness programs with Native American communities in Oregon and California, the Eastern Band Cherokee in North Carolina, and the Narragansett Tribe in Rhode Island. Proulx receives feedback from communities in attempt to find parallels between Native American traditions — like berry picking, dancing and meditation — and mindfulness practices, he said.
Proulx “focuses his work on bringing mindfulness interventions in really respectful ways to Native American communities … His ability to navigate through diversity and inclusion is inspiring,” Loucks said.
“I’m just excited that I’m at Brown and at the Mindfulness Center, especially because of their commitment to diversity,” Proulx said. The “Mindfulness Center is filled with people that have such an open focus on the future and on being inclusive.”
Although the researchers affiliated with the Mindfulness Center are based in many different locations, the establishment has enabled collaboration amongst the researchers and between them and mindfulness educators, Loucks said. “We have very strong mindfulness research, but then we also have very strong mindfulness teacher training programs ... so there’s a lot of synergies between those two.”