Entropy Rules

Cognitive Defusion:

Mindful Decentering Metacognition Psychology

    Recall that survivors of child maltreatment have a tendency towards negative attentional and memory biases (e.g., Lynch & Cicchetti, 1998) and negative self-, other-, and world- schemata (e.g., Cicchetti & Valentino, 2006), that are reminiscent of PTSD hypervigilance and negative alterations in cognition. Additionally, recall that one of the main points of intersection between the constructs of attachment and mindfulness is metacognition, about emotions in particular (Goodall et al., 2012), and that this may be closely related to parental mind-mindedness, or reflective functioning, an aspect of parenting behavior that is linked to the intergenerational transmission of attachment style (e.g., Kelly et al., 2005). Several of these and related cognitive processes that have been implicated in mindfulness include metacognition, attentional control, response inhibition, and the reduction of cognitive bias.


    Metacognition means thinking about thinking, or the ability to be aware of thoughts as mental events. Metacognitive ability undergirds the concepts of mind-mindedness (e.g., Siegel, 2011) and reflective functioning, the ability to appreciate that others also experience and are affected by their own thoughts, qualities that are essential to effective parenting (e.g., Fonagy et al., 2002; Slade, 2002) that may be underdeveloped in adult survivors of child maltreatment (Stacks et al., 2014; Fonagy et al., 1991; Slade, 2007; Steele & Steele, 2008; Suchman et al., 2008; Suchman, DeCoste, & Mayes, 2009; Kelly, Slade, & Grienenberger et al., 2005). Weber and Taylor (2016) asserted mindfulness may exert its beneficial effects via enhanced metacognitive processes. Metacognitive capacity may help individuals by reducing worry or rumination. This was demonstrated in a 90-minute experimental session with a small sample (N=13), over half of which reported a prior mental health issues (Weber & Taylor, 2016).
    Related to metacognition is mindful decentering, a component of state mindfulness, which is the ability to have mental "distance" from thoughts, rather than viewing all thoughts as inherently true. A study of a mindfulness training program in a sample of individuals diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder revealed that mindfulness training effectively reduced depression through increases in interoception (i.e., the ability to notice the subtle sensations associated with the body's physiological state), but only in the context of increased decentering ability (Fissler et al., 2016). Decentering also mediated the path between mindfulness training and reduced depressive symptoms independent of interoceptive ability. This not only highlights the key role of metacognition in mindfulness, but also illustrates the dynamic between different mindfulness processes. Having increased contact with the sense of interoception, which is often encouraged in mindfulness practice, may not be helpful in and of itself, but appears to promote health when metacognitive capacity is present (Fissler et al., 2016).
    Linares, Jauregui, Herrero-Fern‡ndez, and EstŽvez (2016) investigated the mediating role of mindfulness and metacognitive ability in associations between adult attachment style and dysfunctional symptoms in a large sample of Spanish college students. Significant negative correlations were found between depressive symptoms, and both mindfulness and secure attachment style. Secure attachment was correlated with metacognitive capacity. Mindfulness mediated the relationship between attachment style and depressive/anxious symptoms with nonjudgment emerging as the most influential facet of mindfulness. Additionally, depressive symptoms, which are often experienced by child maltreatment survivors, were found to be negatively correlated with the metacognitive variables of mindfulness and decentering, as well as secure attachment (Linares et al., 2016).
    Another way of examining the role of metacognition in mindfulness is to study constructs in opposition to metacognition (e.g., cognitive "fusion", or relating to thoughts as if they were literally true). Nitzan-Assayag, Aderka, and Bernstein (2015) explored the mediating roles cognitive fusion and cognitive suppression, as they related to mindfulness and the development of depressive and posttraumatic stress symptomology following exposure to a disaster-related potentially traumatic event. Mindfulness was associated with less of both cognitive fusion and suppression, which in turn predicted less negative affect and fewer symptoms of psychopathology. Cognitive fusion played a mediating role between mindfulness and distress related outcomes (i.e., negative affect, symptomology of depression and posttraumatic stress) but cognitive suppression did not. Cognitive suppression, which we might understand as willfully or automatically inhibiting metacognition, partially mediated the associations between mindfulness and distress outcomes, with more cognitive suppression linked to higher anxiety sensitivity and rumination. Mindfulness itself did not show a direct significant effect on the outcome variables (Nitzan-Assayag et al., 2015).
    Garland and Roberts-Lewis (2013) examined the connections between dispositional mindfulness, thought suppression, substance cravings, and PTSD symptomology in a large (N=125) sample of people in residential substance use treatment with extensive trauma histories. They found that thought suppression was more closely related to PTSD symptom severity than was severity of trauma history. Trait mindfulness was negatively related to PTSD symptoms and substance cravings. This suggests trait mindfulness may be a cognitive resilience factor in the face of trauma to the extent that it is incompatible with thought suppression (i.e., a lack of metacognition), which is related to substance abuse and more severe PTSD symptoms (Garland & Roberts-Lewis, 2013).
    Rumination is another process that can become problematic when metacognitive capacity is lacking. Royuela-Colomer and Calvete (2016) explored the role of the five facets of mindfulness (observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment, and nonreactivity) and rumination in the development of depressive symptoms over time in a sample of adolescents. They found all aspects of mindfulness except observing correlated negatively with depressive symptoms. Acting with awareness and non-reactivity predicted less depression over time, but contrary to the authors' hypothesis, decreased rumination did not mediate these associations. However, mindful observing predicted greater depressive symptoms, and this effect was mediated by increased rumination (Royuela-Colomer & Calvete, 2016). This study is limited in that it did not assess child maltreatment or meditation exposure. It also draws into question the nature of observing as assessed by the FFMQ in a sample of presumably mostly meditation-na•ve subjects. One interpretation is that mindful observing is a risk factor for poor psychological health. Another possibility is that the manner of observation matters for psychological health (e.g., observing experience with metacognitive capacity versus without metacognitive capacity).
    Considered together these studies indicate that one of the mechanisms through which mindfulness asserts its benefits is through enhancing metacognition and reducing forms of cognitive fusion such as rumination. Better metacognitive capacity has been linked to recovering from difficult experiences, as well as better parenting (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014; Siegel, 2011). For example, when irritated with a fussy child, a parent with developed metacognitive abilities may be more aware of how their thoughts are contributing to their experience of irritation, as well as being better equipped to understand how the child's thinking could contribute to their fussiness.

⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.