A new study offers evidence that music and nature sounds serve as effective attentional targets for acquiring mindfulness attentional skills. When compared to a mindfulness program that focused on the breath, interventions using either music or nature sounds led to a greater likelihood of generalizing acquired skills to everyday life. The research was published in Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain.
Mindfulness involves the awareness and observation of the present moment and is often practiced by focusing one’s attention on a specific object. Modern-day mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) typically work off the flow of the breath, while directing one’s attention to the present and preventing mind-wandering. Studies suggest that these interventions are largely effective, leading to mental health improvements and reduced symptoms of psychopathology.
Given that MBIs have 15% attrition rates, researchers Leong-Min Loo and colleagues set out to explore a way to improve MBI attendance. Reasoning that focusing on internal stimuli like the breath may be particularly challenging for some people, the researchers wanted to explore whether focusing on external stimuli — specifically, music and nature sounds — might be an effective alternative.
Loo and team randomly assigned 79 young adults to attend one of three different 8-week mindfulness training programs. The programs were identical except that they each used a different attentional target — either music, nature sounds, or the breath. The attentional targets were used to practice a focus on the present, the switching of attention, and an open acceptance of all experiences. Each intervention involved 8 one-hour group sessions led by a facilitator and included mindful awareness activities and group discussions.
To assess the effectiveness of each program in teaching mindfulness attentional skills, all participants completed The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) at every session. To assess the mental health impact of the programs, participants completed a single measure of anxiety, depression, and stress three times throughout the study. Subjects also completed a post-intervention interview.
First, participants’ acquisition of mindfulness attentional skills did not significantly differ between the three groups. The subject interviews revealed that, overall, subjects “focused on the “here-and-now”, re-oriented their attention upon detecting mind-wandering (“focusing-refocusing”), [and] “labelled” and “let go” of their experiences,” Loo and colleagues report. Measures of the subjects’ psychological functioning were also comparable among the three groups.
However, differences surfaced within the intervention groups. Notably, both the music and nature groups saw a reduction in depressive and anxiety symptoms within their groups — but the group that focused on the breath did not. This lack of effect runs contrary to findings that show that mindfulness training that focuses on the breath reduces psychopathology symptoms. Loo and colleagues discuss that the lack of effect seen in their study could due to the lower amount of practice that their interventions entailed, which may have been insufficient to see such changes. Typical mindfulness-based interventions emphasize daily at-home practice, which may be crucial for seeing improvements in anxiety and depressive symptoms.
The music and nature groups also experienced a higher turnout. More impressively, subjects in these groups were the only ones to report an intention to generalize the attentional skills they learned into daily life. For example, in the post-intervention interviews, some of these participants reported having learned to “let go” and “refocus attention” during everyday experiences. They also uniquely referred to the “impermanence” of their experiences — for example, by visualizing “thoughts flowing along like a conveyor belt.”
Loo and colleagues say the overall findings suggest that music and nature sounds are suitable attentional targets for mindfulness practice that appear to be as effective as a focus on the breath. The use of these attentional targets also appears to assist learners in transferring their newfound awareness to daily experiences in order to cope with life changes. Future studies among larger, clinical samples are needed to replicate the findings.
The study, “Exploring Mindfulness Attentional Skills Acquisition, Psychological and Physiological Functioning and Wellbeing: Using Mindful Breathing or Mindful Listening in a Non-Clinical Sample”, was authored by Leong-Min Loo, Jon B. Prince, and Helen M. Correia.
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