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Web Feature Posted November 10, 2010

Mindfulness and Brain Scans

Professor’s Interest in “Cognitive Training” Is Personal and Professional

By Jeffrey Overstreet (


The SPU School of Psychology, Family, and Community recently announced that Kathy Lustyk, professor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University, has been awarded a $21,600 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study the physiological effect of mindfulness on women struggling with addiction.

As a women’s health researcher, Lustyk searches for ways to abate stress and improve quality of life in the lives of women. For her pilot study titled “Brain Activation in Women Treated With Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP),” she is monitoring the effect of mindfulness on the brain’s craving circuitry. That influence has not yet been tested, but those who fund mindfulness therapies are increasingly interested in evidence demonstrating its effectiveness.

But what is mindfulness, exactly?

“Mindfulness is related to meditation,” says Lustyk. “It is about training our brains in a form of attention. We pay attention to the present moment, and we cultivate an attitude of nonjudgmental, nonreactive awareness. You assign something as an anchor for your attention, and then you bring your attention back to that anchor when your mind wanders.”

For some mindfulness practitioners, she says, that “anchor” is an awareness of the breath or breathing which can calm and quiet the mind. “It sounds easy, but just try to focus on your breathing for one moment, let alone 10. There is certainly more to it than meets the eye.” But there are many other meditation practices in which that anchor may be a certain scripture, or a prayer, or even a single word.

Lustyk believes that mindfulness meditation can help us by tempering fears and emotions that short-circuit rational thought, and also by reducing the harmful physical effects of stress. What is more, it can change the way we interpret challenging circumstances, so we learn to respond with grace.

Mindfulness can be especially difficult for people in Western culture, where we value the act of “multitasking,” says Lustyk. “We entrain a kind of ‘monkey mind,’ where our mind jumps from thought to thought.” It becomes difficult for us to focus. But when we do, she says, “we may realize that our thoughts are just thoughts rather than the totality of our being. Research suggests that these realizations may shed light on our often irrational fears and anxieties.”

So, should everyone practice mindfulness meditation? Not necessarily. Lustyk argues that while many healthy people meditate in solitude, groups and supervision can increase safety for those meditating. “For example,” she says, “in instances where a person has a history of trauma, working with a skilled therapist would increase safety.”

Mindfulness meditation has played an important part in her own life. “I'm a daily meditator,” she says, “Mindfulness practice has helped me manage stress, and I believe it has improved my overall quality of life. It's cognitive training, and I find that when I have a good ‘sit’ I have better mental clarity that day.”

She’s also curious about the relationship between therapeutic meditation and the practice of contemplative prayer. She asks, “I wonder if people who have done contemplative prayer for years and years have the same brain changes as those who have practiced mindfulness meditation?”
But mindfulness as practiced in manualized therapies such as Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention which Lustyk studies is a cognitive practice, not a form of prayer.

Lustyk’s study of mindfulness has made her a respected expert on the subject. Her lab website refers interested readers to local teachers and resources. Her grant will also result in SPU being listed on, a portion of the National Institutes of Health website that offers up-to-date information for locating federally and privately supported clinical trials for a wide range of diseases and conditions.

“I’m in this because, as a person who loves brain science, I want to better understand the circuitry,” she says. “When we understand what is going on with the brain’s craving circuitry in those who practice mindfulness meditation, we can start to tailor treatment to individuals.

Back to Beyond the Prayer Chain.

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