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Psychology professor receives $100,000 grant for mindfulness research

2021-01-15-Shelley Aikman
About a decade ago, Dr. Shelley Aikman started practicing mindfulness. Based on its benefits, she and her longtime collaborator Dr. Paul Verhaeghen, a Georgia Tech psychology professor who is her husband, decided to test the impact of mindfulness on college-age students. They were awarded a $100,000 Prosociality, Empathy, Altruism, Compassion, and Ethics (PEACE) Grant from the Mind & Life Institute.

About a decade ago, Dr. Shelley Aikman started practicing mindfulness.

"Mindfulness teaches us to focus on the present moment and be aware of our current mindset," the professor of psychological science at the University of North Georgia (UNG) said. "We need to be aware of our feelings and thinking in that moment."

Based on the benefits of mindfulness, Aikman and her longtime collaborator Dr. Paul Verhaeghen, a Georgia Tech psychology professor who is her husband, decided to test the impact of mindfulness on college-age students.

"Anything that increases compassion, even in small ways, is incredibly important," she said. "We, as a society, lack compassion for people who are suffering from injustices. Being open to more compassion can only lead to good things."

The Mind & Life Institute agreed and awarded the couple a $100,000 Prosociality, Empathy, Altruism, Compassion, and Ethics (PEACE) Grant for their research. The center's mission is to bridge science and contemplative wisdom to foster insight and inspire action toward flourishing, according to the website.

"We were happily dancing," with news of the award, Aikman said, explaining she and Verhaeghen completed some previous research but lacked funds to conduct a more in-depth study. "We were really excited to take that next step."

The next step begins this spring with Aikman and Verhaeghen getting their study approved by UNG's Institutional Review Board, creating a questionnaire for participants, and developing a mechanism to document the research.

In the summer, they plan to recruit students for the eight-week program. While participants will be paid, Aikman emphasizes that the time commitment will be substantial. Participants will be prompted at least four times a day for information about their well-being.

"Training people in mindfulness is time-intensive," she said. "Once they are enrolled, they will be asked to answer survey questions repeatedly throughout the day."

Questions will ask about mind wandering, attentional focus, mood, and compassion, for example.

Students also will be guided on meditation.

Based on the students' answers, Aikman and Verhaeghen can document the participants' experiences, feelings and reactions.

"We can hopefully determine if practicing of mindfulness leads them to be more open and compassionate, in addition to having less stress," she said. "Then, we can track it across time, measure it and see how they change."

As a trained health psychologist, Aikman is interested in the health-related outcomes of this research as well as the social implications.

"I want to know if it helps you become a better person in the moment. Being less of a jerk is a good thing for all of us," she said.

For more information or to become a mindfulness research participant, email shelley.aikman@ung.edu.

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