The Science of Mindfulness

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How does mindfulness alter brain function?
What are the benefits of mindfulness and their scientific backing?
Conclusion 
References 
Further reading


Mindfulness practices have their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. Today, people all over the world practice a range of mindfulness techniques, both traditional and modern, in all sorts of settings. Mindfulness is used to manage depression, anxiety, chronic pain, obsessive-compulsive disorder, stress, and more. It has almost become a modern panacea.

However, despite the growing popularity of the practice and its increasing integration in scenarios from the workplace to athletic training, for many years, there has been criticism that there was a lack of scientific studies designed with enough rigor to uncover the scientific underpinnings of mindfulness fully. Fortunately, in the last few years, we have obtained more scientific data to reveal the biological mechanisms that explain the numerous perceived benefits of mindfulness.

How does mindfulness alter brain function?

Mindfulness is the practice of being centered in the present moment. Mindfulness practices focus on the non-judgmental acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that arise from moment to moment. People usually practice mindfulness through meditation and yoga, although new techniques have emerged in recent years as the benefits of mindfulness have become more known.

Our acceptance of mindfulness as a tool to improve our physical and mental health has outpaced the scientific evidence we have to explain how it works. However, that is changing as new studies are published every year.

A growing body of evidence supports the theory that mindfulness practice can measurably alter the brain’s structure and function. These changes are thought to be responsible for the positive impact mindfulness seems to have on emotion regulation, stress response, memory, learning, perspective-taking, and more.

Image Credit:Cast Of Thousands/Shutterstock.com

Image Credit:Cast Of Thousands/Shutterstock.com

Some research has suggested that mindfulness can alter the brain’s innate fight or flight mechanism that originally evolved to keep us safe from the type of threat early man often experienced, such as predators. Our modern lifestyles can often unwillingly activate this mechanism, which leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Acute stress, such as work pressure, arguments with a partner, crowds, and traffic jams, can trigger the fight or flight system. Over time, frequent triggering of this system can lead to negative health outcomes such as anxiety, poor sleep, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal problems, suppression of the immune system, and more.

Mindfulness can rewire our brains so that our reactions to acute stress are less likely to trigger the fight or flight system. The amygdala is a primitive part of the human brain responsible for regulating fear and emotion and managing responses to stressors. Recent MRI data has shown that mindfulness practice can reduce the grey matter in the brain’s amygdala, presumably dampening the stress response.

Additionally, studies have shown that the grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for higher-order cognitive thinking, such as problem-solving, planning, and controlling emotions, can increase after mindfulness practice.

Finally, the brain’s memory and learning center - the hippocampus, has also been shown to increase in volume after mindfulness practice.

What are the benefits of mindfulness and their scientific backing?

There have been numerous scientific studies that have looked specifically into the individual benefits of mindfulness. For example, many studies have reported improved sleep quality following mindfulness practice. In particular, a recent study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that those who completed a mindfulness awareness program experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression after six weeks than those who received sleep education.

There is also mounting evidence that mindfulness can improve psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression. One study found that the practice of mindfulness was related to lower levels of anxiety and depression. Further, the study suggested that mindfulness was effective at reducing anxiety and depression indirectly by reducing thought suppression, reappraisal, worry, and rumination. As a result of studies such as this, many healthcare systems have begun recommending mindfulness. In the UK, it is estimated that as many as 30% of GPs refer patients to mindfulness training.

The Science of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has also been studied in terms of its impact on athletic performance. One recent study has shown a link between mindfulness and reduced stress, improved psychological state, and enhanced athletic performance in athletes.

Finally, there is a growing body of evidence to support the benefit of mindfulness on heart health. A study that was presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2022 reported that after participating in an eight-week mindfulness behavior program, adults who had elevated blood pressure at the beginning of the program had significantly lower blood pressure and reduced sedentary time at their six-month follow-up.

Conclusion

Overall, there is a need for more research into the biological underpinnings of mindfulness for us to understand how it works fully. With this knowledge, we will likely derive further benefits for those suffering from physical and psychological issues. An increased understanding of mindfulness will also likely lead to mindfulness being used more often as a preventative tool as well as a method of supporting our general wellness.

References

  • Andrew E Budson. (2021). Can mindfulness change your brain? [online]. Harvard Health. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-mindfulness-change-your-brain-202105132455 (Accessed March 2023)
  • Hofmann, S.G. and Gómez, A.F. (2017) Mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and depression,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 40(4), pp. 739–749. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2017.08.008.
  • Mentz et al. Late-breaking science abstracts and featured Science abstracts from the American Heart Association's Scientific sessions 2022 and late-breaking abstracts in resuscitation science from the resuscitation science symposium 2022” (2022) Circulation, 146(25). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1161/cir.0000000000001116.
  • Parmentier, F.B. et al. (2019) Mindfulness and symptoms of depression and anxiety in the general population: The mediating roles of worry, rumination, reappraisal and suppression,” Frontiers in Psychology, 10. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00506.
  • Vveinhardt, J. and Kaspare, M. (2022) The relationship between mindfulness practices and the Psychological State and performance of Kyokushin Karate athletes,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(7), p. 4001. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19074001.

Further Reading

 

Last Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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