Aware, Awake, Woke: Finding the Meaning In Mindfulness with Paul Verhaeghen

Most of Paul Verhaeghen’s research has been related to cognitive aging, seeking to better understand what happens to people’s minds as they grow older. But Verhaeghen, a professor in the School of Psychology, also studies the science of mindfulness meditation — searching for data and clues to what happens to people’s overall health and well-being as they seek inner peace.

In 2017, Verhaeghen shared a look into this work when he published his book, “Presence: How Mindfulness and Meditation Shape Your Brain, Mind, and Life.” Now the professor, who has been practicing meditation since he was a teenager, gets a chance to add more to our collective understanding on the science of mindfulness, thanks to a two-year, $100,000 PEACE Grant from the Mind & Life Institute, a non-profit organization formed in 1991 to study the contemplative sciences (the empirical study of consciousness and the subjective, experiential study of consciousness through contemplation). Verhaeghen shares the PEACE grant with co-principal investigator Shelley Aikman, a professor of psychological science at the University of North Georgia.

Verhaeghen and Aikman have titled their research project, “Aware, Awake, Woke: How a Brief Mindfulness Intervention Fosters Prosocial/Ethical Attitudes.” According to the way the two researchers describe their work to the Mind & Life Institute, “the project will use everyday momentary assessments to chart day-by-day changes in a mindfulness intervention, from attention control to prosocial attitudes, and the causal structure of these changes.”

The PEACE Grants grew out of the Mind & Life Institute’s goal of supporting science research projects “that advance our understanding of wholesome mental qualities and positive interpersonal and social action related to Prosociality, Empathy, Altruism, Compassion, and Ethics (PEACE),” according to the organization’s website. “With this mechanism, Mind & Life will fund projects that advance our understanding of the mechanisms, implementation and outcomes of contemplative strategies to promote well-being and prosocial behavior in individuals and communities. In addition, we encourage the development of measures to rigorously assess these qualities in various real-world contexts.”

Seeking, sharing inner calm 

Verhaeghen shared a peek into his findings on the potential benefits of mindfulness during a College of Sciences “ScienceMatters” podcast episode last year:

“Mindfulness meditation seems to have effects on a wide variety of things: on attention, on stress, on the immune system, on well-being, and positive emotions on depression, on anxiety. And that's true for healthy adults, and it also is true for clinical populations — so trials that have been run, clinical trials ... controlled trials with people who are depressed or are having anxiety, phobias, et cetera — suggest that there are very good effects there. They're just as good as standard treatment.”

The new project with Aikman hopes to trace how a person’s qualitative psychology changes from day to day as they go through a mindfulness program.

“In mindfulness meditation programs, people learn many different skills, such as focusing on the present moment, being aware of their current mind states, relaxing the body, savoring their experiences, and so on,” explains Verhaeghen. “Research shows that this improves well-being, makes people less stressed, and even more empathic and compassionate. Our research question is simply: Why is that?”

Verhaeghen’s study will ask participants to go through an eight-week program. “We will beep them a few times per day on their smartphones, and ask questions about their experiences — if their mind wanders, how focused they feel, if stressors happened and how they reacted, how anxious or sad they feel if moments of compassion arose, etc. By doing so, we can see how these different aspects hang together and potentially drive each other — whether, as we suspect, becoming more aware of your experiences in the moment wakes you up to well-being — making it more possible for you to open up to others and their experiences and plights.”