Mindfulness promotes control of brain network dynamics for self-regulation and discontinues the past from the present

Mindfulness is characterized by attentiveness to the present experience with nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance. Practicing mindfulness alters brain function to support the executive regulation of thoughts, feelings, and behavior. While early stages of practice are thought to require greater “neural effort” for later efficiency, current evidence relies on circular definitions of effort based on functional activity magnitude. Here we used network control theory as a model of how external control inputs, which operationalize effort, can distribute changes in neural activity across the macro-scale structural brain network. Further, we inferred the intrinsic timescale of activity to operationalize present-centered activity as shorter momentary timescales that discontinue the past and update the present. To explain effects of mindful regulation on alcohol consumption, we applied these methods to a randomized controlled intervention study with resting-state and task fMRI data. The task primed participants to either mindfully respond or naturally react to alcohol cues. Mobile text interventions and measurements of alcohol consumption were administered using ecological momentary assessments during the subsequent 4 weeks. We hypothesized that neural states of mindfulness require greater effort to enact and sustain. This effort may support deautomatized habitual natural reactions, discontinued processing, and updated present-centered neural dynamics. We found that mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to the natural reactions of the benchmark group, involved more effortful control of neural dynamics across cognitive control and attention networks. This effort persisted in the natural reactions of the mindful group compared to the benchmark group. Using resting-state fMRI, we found that more effortful neural states tended to occur over shorter timescales than less effortful states. Our findings provide an explanation for how neural dynamics with altered effort and stability, such as mindful states, tend to center the present experience.