Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness
David R. Vago and David A. Silbersweig
Mindfulness—as a state, trait, process, type of meditation, and intervention has proven to be beneficial across a diverse group of psychological disorders as well as for general stress reduction. Yet, there remains a lack of clarity in the operationalization of this construct, and underlying mechanisms. Here, we provide an integrative theoretical framework and systems-based neurobiological model that explains the mechanisms by which mindfulness reduces biases related to self-processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. Mindfulness is described through systematic mental training that develops meta-awareness (self-awareness), an ability to effectively modulate one’s behavior (self-regulation), and a positive relationship between self and other that transcends self-focused needs and increases prosocial characteristics (self-transcendence). This framework of self-awareness, -regulation, and -transcendence (S-ART) illustrates a method for becoming aware of the conditions that cause (and remove) distortions or biases. The development of S-ART through meditation is proposed to modulate self-specifying and narrative self-networks through an integrative fronto-parietal control network. Relevant perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral neuropsychological processes are highlighted as supporting mechanisms for S-ART, including intention and motivation, attention regulation, emotion regulation, extinction and reconsolidation, prosociality, non-attachment, and decentering. The S-ART framework and neurobiological model is based on our growing understanding of the mechanisms for neurocognition, empirical literature, and through dismantling the specific meditation practices thought to cultivate mindfulness. The proposed framework will inform future research in the contemplative sciences and target specific areas for development in the treatment of psychological disorders.