The real reason I began to practise mindfulness seriously was because of the empirical evidence of what happens in the brain. It wasn’t good enough that mindfulness helped me deal with the depression or that it brought me calm in the storm, ever the sceptic, I demanded hard-core proof. It appeared I didn’t trust my own feelings as much as I did science.
There is so much data to show the practice doesn’t just ameliorate physical and emotional pain, it sharpens your concentration and focus and therefore gives you the edge when others are floundering in the mud. (If that’s what you’re after.)
Here is just some of the evidence that swung the jury in favour of mindfulness (for me):
Connection to Feelings
A number of studies have found mindfulness results in increased blood flow to the insula and an increased volume and density of grey matter. This is a crucial area that gives the ability to focus into your body, and connects you to your feelings, such as butterflies in your stomach, or a blow to the heart. Strengthening your insula enhances introspection, which is the key to mindfulness.
Researchers found that increased blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex after just six 30 minute meditation sessions strengthened connections to this area, which is crucial for controlling impulse, and may help explain why mindfulness is effective in helping with self control, i.e. addictions.
Counteracting High Anxiety
Researchers from Stanford found that after an eight week mindfulness course participants had less reactivity in their amygdala and reported feeling fewer negative emotions.
Quietening the Mind
The brain stem produces neurotransmitters which regulate attention, mood and sleep. These changes may explain why meditators perform better on tests of attention, are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and often have improved sleep patterns.
The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory and can help with reactivity to stress. Increased density of neurons in this area may help explain why meditators are more emotionally stable and less anxious.
Changes in the cerebellum are likely to contribute to meditators’ increased ability to respond to life events in a positive way.
Curbing Addictive Behaviour
The prefrontal cortex is involved with self regulation and decision making. Mindfulness has been found to increase blood flow to this area, which enhances self awareness and self control, helping you to make constructive choices and let go of harmful ones.
PET scans were performed on 18 OCD patients before and after 10 weeks of mindfulness practice, none took medication and all had moderate to severe symptoms. PET scans after treatment showed activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically meaning the worry circuit was unwired. It was the first study to show that mindfulness based cognitive therapy has the power to systematically change brain chemistry in a well identified brain circuit. So, intentionally making a mindful effort can alter brain function and this induces neuroplasticity. This is the first time it was established that mindfulness is a form of experience that promotes neuroplasticity.
Orbital Frontal Cortex
A Quicker Brain
Researchers from UCLA have found that meditators have stronger connections between different areas in the brain. This greater connectivity is not limited to specific regions but found across the brain at large. It also increases the ability to rapidly relay information from one area to the next giving you a quicker and more agile brain.
Training Your Brain, As Well As Your Body
A trained mind is physically different from an untrained mind. You can retain inner strength even though the world around you is frantic and chaotic. People are trying to find the antidotes to suffering so it’s time we started doing the obvious; training our brains as we do our bodies. Changing the way you think changes the chemicals in your brain. For example, the less you workout, the lower the level of acetylcholine and the less you have of this chemical, the poorer your ability to pay attention. Even with age related losses, almost every physical aspect of the brain can recover and new neurons can bloom.
More Positive Research on Mindfulness
Research from Harvard University suggests that we spend nearly 50% of our day mindwandering, typically lost in negative thoughts about what might happen, or has already happened to us. There is a mind-wandering network in the brain, which generates thoughts centred around ‘me’ and is focused in an area called the medial prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that when we practise mindfulness, activity in this ‘me’ centre decreases. Furthermore, it has been shown that when experienced practitioners’ minds do wander, monitoring areas (such as the lateral prefrontal cortex) become active to keep an eye on where the mind is going and if necessary bring attention back to the present, which results in less worrying and more living.
Medial Prefrontal Cortex
Researchers from the University of Montreal investigated the differences in how meditators and non-meditators experience pain and how this relates to brain structure. They found that the more experienced the meditators were, the thicker their anterior cingulate cortex and the lower their sensitivity to pain.
Researchers from Emory University found that the decline in cognitive abilities that typically occurs as we age, such as slower reaction times and speed of thinking, was not found in elderly meditators. Using fMRl, they also established that the physical thinning of grey matter that usually comes with ageing had actually been remarkably diminished.
Researchers from UCLA found that when people become aware of their anger and label it as ‘anger’ then the part of the brain that generates negative emotions, the amygdala, calms down. It’s almost as if once the emotional message has been delivered to the conscious mind it can quieten down a little.
Mindfulness activates the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system, and increases blood flow to parts of our brains that help us regulate our emotions, such as the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex and the lateral parts of the prefrontal cortex. Our heart rate slows, our respiration slows and our blood pressure drops. A researcher from Harvard coined the changes in the body that meditation evokes as the ‘relaxation response’ basically the opposite to the ‘stress response’. While the stress response is extremely detrimental to the body, the relaxation response is extremely salutary and is probably at the root of the wide-ranging benefits mindfulness has been found to have, both mentally and physically.
Mindfulness and the Body
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Madison investigated the effects of mindfulness on immune system response. They injected participants with a flu virus at the end of an eight-week course and they found that the mindfulness group had a significantly stronger immune system compared with the others.
Scientists at UCLA found mindfulness to be extremely effective at maintaining the immune system of HIV sufferers. Over an eight-week period, the group who weren’t taught mindfulness had a 25% fall in their CDT 4 cells (the ‘brains’ of the immune system) whereas the group taught mindfulness maintained their levels.
Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found that improved psychological wellbeing fostered by meditation may reduce cellular ageing. People who live to more than 100 have been found to have more active telomerase, an enzyme involved in cell replication. The researchers found that the meditators had a 30% increase in this enzyme linked to longevity following a three-month retreat.
Skin disorders are a common symptom of stress. The University of Massachusetts taught mindfulness to psoriasis sufferers and found their skin problems cleared four times faster than those who weren’t taught the technique.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina have found mindfulness to be an effective method of treating irritable bowel syndrome. Over a period of eight weeks, participants either were taught mindfulness or they went to a support group. Three months later, they found that on a standard 500-point IBS symptom questionnaire, the support group’s score had dropped by 30 points. The mindfulness group’s score had fallen by more than 100 points.
Researchers from Emory University investigated whether training in compassion meditation could reduce physiological responses to stress. Participants were stressed by being requested to perform a public speaking task. The researchers found that the participants who had practised the most had the lowest physiological responses to stress, as measured by reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines and also reported the lowest levels of psychological distress.
Researchers investigated the physiological effects of an eight-week mindfulness programme on patients suffering from breast cancer and prostate cancer. In addition to the patients reporting reduced stress, they found significant reductions in physiological markers of stress, such as reduced cortisol levels, pro-inflammatory cytokines, heart rate and systolic blood pleasure. A follow-up study a year later found these improvements had been maintained or enhanced further.
Mindfulness and Emotions
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigated the effects of an eight-week mindfulness course on generalized anxiety disorder. 90% of those taught the technique reported significant reductions in anxiety.
Studies from the University of Wisconsin suggest that meditators’ calmness is not a result of becoming emotionally numb in fact they may be able to experience emotions more fully. If asked to enter into a state of compassion, then played an emotionally evocative sound, such as a woman screaming, they showed increased activity in the emotional areas of the brain compared to novices. However, if asked to enter into a state of deep concentration, they showed reduced activity in the emotional areas of the brain compared with novices. The key is that they were better able to control their emotional reactions depending on the mental state they chose to be in.
Optimists and resilient people have been found to have more activity in the front of their brains (prefrontal cortex) on the left hand side, whereas those more prone to rumination and anxiety have more on the right. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that after eight weeks of mindfulness practice, participants had been able to change their baseline levels of activity moving more towards left hand activation. This suggests that mindfulness can help us change our base-line levels of happiness and optimism.
If you suffer from recurring depression, scientists suggest that mindfulness might be a way to keep you free from it. Researchers from Toronto and Exeter in the UK recently found that learning mindfulness, while tapering off anti-depressants, was as effective as remaining on medication.
Researchers from Stanford University have found that mindfulness can help with social anxiety by reducing reactivity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that is typically overactive in those with anxiety problems.
Researchers at the University of Manchester tested meditators’ response to pain, by heating their skin with a laser. They found that the more meditation the subject had done, the less they experienced pain. They also found that they had less neural activity in the anticipation of pain than controls, which is likely to be due to their increased ability to remain in the present rather than worry about the future.
A recent study from Wake Forest University found that just four sessions of 20 minutes mindfulness training a day reduced pain sensitivity by 57% an even greater reduction than drugs such as morphine.
Numerous studies have found that mindfulness on its own or in combination with medication can be effective in dealing with addictive behaviours, from drug abuse through to binge eating. Recently researchers from Yale School of Medicine found that mindfulness training of less than 20 minutes per day was more effective at helping smokers quit than the American Lung Association’s gold standard treatment. Over a period of four weeks, on average, there was a 90% reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked from 18 per day to two per day with 35% of smokers quitting completely. When they checked four months later over 30% had maintained abstinence.
Researchers investigated the impact of mindfulness on the psychological health of 90 cancer patients. After seven weeks of daily practice, the patients reported a 65% reduction in mood disturbances including depression, anxiety, anger and confusion. They also reported a 31% reduction in symptoms of stress and less stress-related heart and stomach pain.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego investigated the impact of a four week mindfulness programme on the psychological well-being of students, in comparison to a body relaxation technique. They found that both techniques reduced distress, however mindfulness was more effective at developing positive states of mind and at reducing distractive and ruminative thoughts. This research suggests that training the mind with mindfulness delivers benefits over and above simple relaxation.
Mindfulness and Thoughts/Cognition
Researchers from Wake Forest University investigated how four sessions of 20 minutes mindfulness practice could affect critical cognitive abilities. They found that the mindfulness practitioners were significantly better than the control group at maintaining their attention and performed especially well at stressful tasks under time pressure. [This is another study demonstrating that significant benefits can be enjoyed from relatively little practise]
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to investigate how mindfulness could help improve thinking in the face of stress. So, they taught it to marines prior to their deployment in Iraq. In cognitive tests, they found that the marines who practised for more than 10 minutes a day managed to maintain their mental abilities in spite of a stressful deployment period, whereas the control group and those practising less than 10 minutes could not.
Researchers from UCLA conducted a pilot to investigate the effectiveness of an eight-week mindfulness course for adults and adolescents with ADHD. Over 75% of the participants reported a reduction in their total ADHD symptoms, with about a third reporting clinically significant reductions in their symptoms of more than 30%.
Researchers conducted a pilot study, to investigate the efficacy of mindfulness in treating OCD. Sixty per cent of the participants experienced clinically significant reductions in their symptoms, of over 30%. The researchers suggest that the increased ability to ‘let go’ of thoughts and feelings helps stop the negative rumination process that is so prevalent in OCDs
I hope the above has not put you to sleep but for me it makes me feel I’m in well researched hands. If it’s good enough for Harvard, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Yale School of Medicine and Stanford, it’s good enough for me.