Since opening in 2005, the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA has focused on identifying, evaluating and disseminating the most effective mind awareness practices to assist individuals in both clinical and non-clinical settings.
“The center’s mission is to foster mindful awareness in daily living using research and education,” says Dr. Susan Smalley, founder and director of MARC and professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
Smart Business spoke with Smalley about mindful awareness, how it has influenced her work with ADHD and why self-help tools could ultimately lead to treatment models based on prevention.
What is mindful awareness?
Mindful awareness is a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s experiences as they occur. This means paying attention to where your are at the present moment.
That can include things like what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, your body sensations, and so on. Many of these practices are drawn from Eastern traditions like Tai Chi, yoga and meditation. Some people use the term ‘mindfulness,’ which can be used synonymously with mindful awareness.
How has this practice influenced your work with ADHD?
As an awareness training methodology, mindful awareness practices centered in meditation seem to help individuals regulate their attention. You take something that is automatic like watching your breath and you give it your full attention. Through this process of meditating and learning how to regulate your attention to your present experience, you start to discover a lot about how your mind works. For example, it is easy to lose interest in the process of paying attention to your breath and your mind wanders off. In the process of becoming aware that your mind has wandered and attempting to bring it back, there is a training of attention that occurs.
A colleague (Lidia Zylowska, M.D.) and I conducted a study using mindful awareness to work with individuals who had attention disorders. The pilot study we conducted looked at attention deficit disorders among teenagers and adults and found promising changes in attention as measured by computerized tasks of attention and other objective measures. This pilot study suggests that these tasks will lead to attention regulation and may be very useful as a complementary tool in working with individuals who have attention disorders.
You founded the Mindful Awareness Research Center. What challenges have you faced with this project?
The biggest obstacle has been getting scientists to appreciate ‘looking within’ as a tool of discovery. Mindful awareness can be studied using objective tools of Western science, but trying to get scientists to actually have the experience themselves (a subjective experience) as well as investigate it has been a challenge.
In order to understand mindful awareness, it really requires a first-person experience, which means you have to do it. As scientists are trained to look outside themselves and objectify experiences for study, it’s challenging to introduce subjective experience as an alternative method of discovery into the culture of science.
What does initial research reveal about the possibilities of using mindful awareness to help treat behavioral and psychiatric disorders?
Most of the research has been done with adults, and a lot of it has been conducted in a clinical population individuals with depression and anxiety disorders. Those studies are very promising in that there are clear improvements in mood and reductions in anxiety. Also, new studies are investigating biological and physiological correlates. These findings will be of vital importance in helping people self-regulate their own emotions and their own attention.
How can self-help tools like mindful awareness ultimately lead to a treatment model of prevention rather than intervention?
In the past, research has focused on intervention rather than prevention. But this will shift because we’ll be able to identify individuals who carry susceptibility genes for different kinds of traits, such as a predisposition toward anxiety and depression.
Mindful awareness practices will increase in importance as early detection of predisposition occurs. This is what we’re seeing with genetic knowledge around chronic physical illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Even though genes play an important role, preventive steps like diet and exercise will play a very important role in preventing mental health illnesses in the future.