Mindfulness: the science behind the practice

During the past two decades, more and more scientists have studied mindfulness—a Buddhist-inspired collection of practices aimed at helping us to cultivate moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our environment. Their early findings triggered an enormous amount of enthusiasm for meditation.

Sometimes, however, journalists and even scientists (who should know better) have overstated the physical and mental health benefits, which has fed growing skepticism about mindfulness.

Mindfulness: The Science Behind the Practice This essay was adapted from Greater Good content for the January issue of Lion's Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time. Subscribe now!

Indeed, the science behind mindfulness meditation has often suffered from poor research designs and small effect sizes, as 15 psychologists and neuroscientists found after reviewing hundreds of mindfulness studies.

Their paper, published in October by Perspectives on Psychological Science, argues that there is still much we don’t understand about mindfulness and meditation. Worse, many scientists and practitioners don’t even agree on the definition of those words.

They end the paper calling for “truth in advertising by contemplative neuroscience.”

In that spirit, here’s a rundown of questions that seem fairly settled, for the time being, and questions researchers are still exploring.

Meditation almost certainly does sharpen your attention

It’s not surprising that meditation would affect attention, since many practices focus on this very skill. And, in fact, researchers have found that meditation helps to counter habituation—the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Other studies have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce mind-wandering and improve our ability to solve problems.

Benefits of Mindfulness – HelpGuide.org

Mindfulness: The Science Behind the Practice

It’s a busy world. You fold the laundry while keeping one eye on the kids and another on the television. You plan your day while listening to the radio and commuting to work, and then plan your weekend. But in the rush to accomplish necessary tasks, you may find yourself losing your connection with the present moment—missing out on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Did you notice whether you felt well-rested this morning or that forsythia is in bloom along your route to work?

Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness is now being examined scientifically and has been found to be a key element in stress reduction and overall happiness.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

The cultivation of mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but most religions include some type of prayer or meditation technique that helps shift your thoughts away from your usual preoccupations toward an appreciation of the moment and a larger perspective on life.

Professor emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, helped to bring the practice of mindfulness meditation into mainstream medicine and demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can bring improvements in both physical and psychological symptoms as well as positive changes in health, attitudes, and behaviors.

Mindfulness improves well-being.

The Science Behind Mindfulness And Meditation

“Mindfulness,” one of the central ideas in meditation could also provide important insights into how to improve brain functioning, Ohio State University psychologist Ruchika Prakash explained at the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center’s Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. Prakash has conducted a number of studies proving the benefits of mindfulness-based therapeutic practices, work that also provides a compelling window into how the brain functions.

Prakash described how mindfulness can serve as a useful framework for understanding how to improve brain health. In meditation, mindfulness refers to the development of a present-focused consciousness of one’s thoughts and emotions.

“Ultimately mindfulness is about creating this deeper relationship with who we are as a person and developing greater self-awareness,” said Prakash.

That “deeper relationship” then becomes a basis for therapeutic techniques that can lead to improved emotion regulation and, with time and practice, improved connectivity between different parts of the brain.

“The way we’re thinking about mindfulness both in terms of cognitive health and brain health ties into the adaptability of different networks in the brain,” Prakash said.

For instance, the brain’s fronto-parietal network relates to attention and interpretation of information and stimuli; meanwhile, the “default mode” is the network that activates when the brain is at rest, or isn’t focused on a specific task.

“When brain health is inadequate we see the activation of a lot of these networks together, and not this specialized recruitment of different networks,” she explained. In a healthy brain, the networks have clearly defined roles, but also have a certain flexibility.

“An understanding of the flexibility and the adaptability of networks is how I would describe the neural correlates of mindfulness,” Prakash said.

There’s already proof that mindfulness-based practices can have a positive impact on brain health.

Prakash found that four weeks of mindfulness training could reduce “emotional dysregulation” among multiple sclerosis sufferers—an important finding, considering 50% of chronic disease patients experience some form of depression.

Prakash said that new studies also show a link between mindfulness training and reduced inflammation of the brain. Brain inflammation can result from stress, injury, or disease, and has been linked to a number of health consequences, including depression and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Mindfulness training could eventually be a way of instilling positive habits in patients, Prakash explained. Doctors now recommend exercise, sleep, diet, and meditation as means of promoting and maintaining brain health.

Prakash asks “How can we integrate a lot of these different approaches and really convey an idea that works for people?,” she asks. “One of the avenues that I’m trying to get into is the idea of mindfulness promoting behavior change…

Thinking about mindfulness really as a facilitator of behavior change is the next frontier within this research.”

This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit HuffPost’s Brain Health page.

The problem with mindfulness

Summary: While those who promote mindfulness claim the practice offers massive amounts of health and psychological benefits, very little scientific evidence backs up the claim.

Source: The Conversation

Mindfulness, it seems everybody’s doing it. You might have even tried it yourself – or have a regular practice.

Thanks to the help of an app on your phone that speaks to you in dulcet tones, you are reminded to “let go” and to “observe your breath”.

From the public education to healthcare, the corporate world to the criminal justice system, parliament to the military, mindfulness is promoted as a cure-all for modern ills.

Yet the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness is not strong. In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a number of psychologists and cognitive scientists warn that despite the hype, scientific data on mindfulness is limited. They caution:

Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.

Studies on mindfulness are known for their numerous methodological and conceptual problems. This includes small sample sizes, lack of control groups, and insufficient use of valid measures.

See also:  6 writing resolutions for 2019

To this list, the possibility of competing interests can also be added.

In a recent example, the mega-journal PLOS ONE retracted a meta-analysis on mindfulness after concerns were raised over the methodology behind the results, including “double counting” and “incorrect effect estimates”.

The PLOS retraction also cited undeclared financial conflicts of interest by the authors. The journal noted that none of the authors agreed with the retraction.

Despite these issues, mindfulness has never been more popular and its influence in mainstream culture is massive, as can be seen in the creation of a new professorship in mindfulness and psychological science at the University of Oxford.

The position was created by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which became affiliated with the university’s Department of Psychiatry in 2011, after initially establishing as a private company in 2007 and later registering as a charity. It has since become a key player in shaping both the academic studies of mindfulness and the public’s perception of the practice. A brief history of mindfulness

Mindfulness is a type of meditation derived from the Buddhist tradition. It encourages the observation of present thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations in a non-judgemental way. But how did it gain such prominence in Western mainstream culture?

For a start, the modern concept of Buddhism that Westerners relate to today did not exist a century ago. This new style of Buddhism is known as “Buddhist Modernism”, or “Protestant Buddhism” – a reform movement of the late 19th century.

This form of Buddhism was developed as a result of the influence of Christian missionaries and to the colonialism and imperialism of South-East Asia by European nations.

To respond to their colonial situation, the elite of the movement reshaped Buddhism by aligning it to Western science and philosophy.

This was done by representing Buddhism as rational, universal and compatible with science – with an emphasis placed upon meditation and personal reflection.

The advocates of this reform projected modern Western values onto Buddhist teachings who claimed to teach the “pure” Buddhism as taught by the historical Buddha himself.

Contemporary meditation teachers, including Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ), the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction(MBSR) – an eight-week programme that offers mindfulness training to help people with stress and pain – inherited and popularised this version of Buddhism.

When pressed about the Buddhist elements of their courses, teachers such as JKZ argue the technique is not Buddhist, but the “essence” of the Buddha’s teachings. These are said to be “universal” and compatible with science. Or as JKZ has put it, “the Buddha himself was not a Buddhist”.

Science Behind Mindfulness (Podcast with Diana Winston)

As we enter week 2 of our 30 Day Meditation Challenge, I’m curious as to what science has to say about meditation. What has modern technology been able to prove? As I reached out to seasoned meditation practitioners to help along our meditation journey, I came to value the expertise and scientific understanding of Diana Winston.

Diana Winston

Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center.

After 30 years of mindfulness training, Diana Winston is now working with UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center as the Director of Mindfulness Education.

Her goal is to ultimately cultivate a more peacefulness compassionate society through mindfulness meditation training.

In our conversation, she shares the benefits from her own experience, how meditation affects the brain, and how to further cultivate mindfulness regardless of one’s beliefs or background. Enjoy.

Listen to Podcast on iTunes

Feel the sense of ease, relaxation and connectedness the picture above evokes? That’s your frontal lobe lighting up. The same part of the brain that is stimulated and strengthened during meditation.

We unknowingly cultivating mindfulness all the time. Another time you’ve experienced the benefits of mindfulness is that epiphany moment in the shower.

Research shows our creativity and lateral thinking increases when we’re doing something that allows us to tune-in to what our senses are experiencing in this moment.

Other examples of this would be practicing music, surfing, and stacking a house of cards.

Though most the research on meditation has been conducted in just the past few decades, there appear to be a reoccurring findings. The most exciting to me is that a systematic training of the mind ultimately helps us tap into what we most cherish.

Short Term Meditation Effects on the Brain

Though you may notice results from just a single meditation session, this study shows through MRI scanning that the following physical changes in the brain occur after just eight weeks of meditating 30 minutes a day:

  • The pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making.
  • The growth of the posterior cingulate – involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
  • A strengthened the left hippocampus – assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  • Increased activity in the temporo parietal junction – associated with perspective taking, empathy, and compassion.
  • An increase of pons –where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
  • A shrinking of the amygdala – the “fight or flight” part of the brain associated with anxiety, fear and stress in general.

Who would have thought that thoughlessness could have such a huge effect on our thoughts!?

Long-term Meditation Effects on the Brain

A study by looking at long term meditators vs a control group found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula (a region of the brain deep in the cerebral cortex) and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense because when you’re mindful, you’re often paying attention to your immediate senses: breathe, heart, sounds, and other present experiences while shutting cognition down.

This study also found long-term meditators had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory, executive decision making and contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the brain associated with reward, attention, short-term memory, planning, and motivation.

The Science Behind Mindfulness

At SIYLI, it’s no secret that we think mindfulness is mighty, but it’s not just our opinion. It’s easy to dismiss mindful practices as simply an emotional lift in your day, but everyday scientists are discovering new physical and mental benefits to meditation and mindful life.

Even US Marines are adopting mindful training because studies have shown it helps keep people calm, smarter and focused, even during the pressures of war. Studies have shown that using mindful techniques makes you happier because the practices actually change your brain chemistry over time.

So why are mindful practices so effective in brain training and keeping you happy and effective at work and at home?

Because mindful practitioners are so used to inquiry, we have also become very comfortable with science and scientific inquiry into mindfulness itself. The best example of this comfort with science was when the Dalai Lama said, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

With this in mind, let us take a quick glance at some of the peer-reviewed scientific literature surrounding meditation. Scientists Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat- Zinn, pioneers in the field of contemplative neuroscience, studied employees of a biotechnology company.

See also:  How to round numbers (part 1)

The study showed that after just eight weeks of mindfulness training, the anxiety level of the subjects was measurably lower.

When the electrical activity of the subjects’ brains was measured, in the mindful group showed significantly increased activity in the parts of their brain associated with positive emotions.

In sum, after just eight weeks of mindfulness, subjects were measurably happier (as measured in their brains) and show a marked increase in developing immunity. Remember that this study was not conducted on bald guys wearing robes living in a monastery, but on ordinary people with real lives and real high-stress jobs in corporate America.

A later study focused on attention exploring mindfulness in relation to an interesting phenomenon known as “attentional-blink” deficit. Let’s say you are shown a series of characters on a computer screen one at a time, in quick succession.

The entire series is made up of letters, except for two numbers (for example, P, U, H, 3, W, N, 9, T, Y). Your task is to identify the two numbers in the series. If the two numbers are presented within half a second of each other, the second one is often not detected.

This phenomenon is known as attentional-blink.

This attentional-blink has previously been assumed to be a feature of our brain’s wiring, and therefore, cannot be changed. The study shows that after just three months of intensive and rigorous training in mindfulness, participants can significantly reduce their attentional-blink.

The theory is that with mindfulness training, one’s brain can learn to process stimuli more efficiently. This study is a glimpse into the possibility of upgrading the operating efficiency of our brains with mindfulness meditation.

So if your job depends on your ability to pay attention to information for a prolonged period of time, (wait, that’s good for everyone) maybe this mindfulness thing is useful.

Don’t take our word for it. Look at the studies.

SIYLI Suggestion: Are you paying attention? Read a page in a book and recall it a day later. Practice mindfulness for a week and then test your focus with the book again. Did the mindfulness make a difference?

Mindfulness: The Science Behind the Practice

Credit: Getty ImagesAdvertisement

The practice of mindfulness is everywhere. Business leaders, professional athletes, mental health professionals, and, of course, your neighbor down the street are all discussing how being mindful can improve our mental state and general well-being. Mindfulness is used as an approach for treating pain, depression, anxiety, OCD, addiction, chronic diseases, and HIV treatment side effects, as well as an aid in weight loss and in being more productive. So what is mindfulness? And what does the research have to say about its ability to better our lives?

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can have different definitions depending on whom you ask but however one defines mindfulness, the different approaches to the practice all fall under the idea of paying attention on purpose.

This can mean noticing the things we take for granted from the feel of our shoes against our feet to the ways we interact with others.

More clinically, mindfulness is defined as the self-regulation of attention with an attitude toward openness.

The meditation and emphasis on being fully aware of your surroundings often associated with the practice of mindfulness have similarities to traditional Buddhist practices, but today’s reincarnation of mindfulness is entirely secular. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs (known as MBSRs) typically focus on internal self reflection and the reduction of distractions as you focus your thoughts on the present.

The Science of Mindfulness

What are the evidence-backed benefits of participating in a mindfulness program?

  1. Memory Improvement
  2. Stress Reduction
  3. Healthier Diet
  4. Sleep Improvement

Let's explore each a little further. 

»Continue reading “Mindfulness: The Science Behind the Practice” on QuickAndDirtyTips.com

Mindfulness: The Science Behind the Practice

The practice of mindfulness is everywhere. Business leaders, professional athletes, mental health professionals, and, of course, your neighbor down the street are all discussing how being mindful can improve our mental state and general well-being.

Mindfulness is used as an approach for treating pain, depression, anxiety, OCD, addiction, chronic diseases, and HIV treatment side effects, as well as an aid in weight loss and in being more productive.

So what is mindfulness? And what does the research have to say about its ability to better our lives?

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can have different definitions depending on whom you ask but however one defines mindfulness, the different approaches to the practice all fall under the idea of paying attention on purpose.

This can mean noticing the things we take for granted from the feel of our shoes against our feet to the ways we interact with others.

More clinically, mindfulness is defined as the self-regulation of attention with an attitude toward openness.

The meditation and emphasis on being fully aware of your surroundings often associated with the practice of mindfulness have similarities to traditional Buddhist practices, but today’s reincarnation of mindfulness is entirely secular. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs (known as MBSRs) typically focus on internal self reflection and the reduction of distractions as you focus your thoughts on the present.

The Science of Mindfulness

What are the evidence-backed benefits of participating in a mindfulness program?

  1. Memory Improvement
  2. Stress Reduction
  3. Healthier Diet
  4. Sleep Improvement

Let's explore each a little further. 

1. A mindfulness practice can help improve memory

Mindful meditation has been shown to change the physical structure of our brains. For example, it prevents the thinning of the frontal cortex that generally happens as we get older and causes us to forget stuff. That study, led by Dr.

Sara Lazar of Harvard Medical School, found that participating in an 8-week-long Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (or MBSR program for short) led to changes in the concentration of gray matter in the areas of the brain used for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective taking.

In another study of 48 undergraduate students, the majority of whom were female, researchers found that those who took a 2-week-long mindfulness class performed better on the reading comprehension portion of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test used for graduate school admissions by 16 percentile points.

The class taught students to focus on physical posture and methods for focusing their attention on a task. The class also required daily meditation outside of the classroom.

The authors of the study credited the improvement in scores to an increased ability to reduce distracting thoughts and an improved working memory due to the mindfulness practice.

See also:  When is it ok to be redundant?

2. Practicing mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety

Harvard researchers study how mindfulness may change the brain in depressed patients

Sign up for daily emails to get the latest Harvard news.

In her current work, she is exploring meditation’s effects on the brains of clinically depressed patients, a group for whom studies have shown meditation to be effective. Working with patients selected and screened by Shapero, Desbordes is performing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans before and after an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT.

During the scans, participants complete two tests, one that encourages them to become more aware of their bodies by focusing on their heartbeats (an exercise related to mindfulness meditation), and the other asking them to reflect on phrases common in the self-chatter of depressed patients, such as “I am such a loser,” or “I can’t go on.” After a series of such comments, the participants are asked to stop ruminating on the phrases and the thoughts they trigger. Researchers will measure how quickly subjects can disengage from negative thoughts, typically a difficult task for the depressed.

The process will be repeated for a control group that undergoes muscle relaxation training and depression education instead of MBCT.

While it’s possible that patients in the control part of the study also will have reduced depressive symptoms, Desbordes said it should occur via different mechanisms in the brain, a difference that may be revealed by the scans.

The work, which received funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, has been underway since 2014 and is expected to last into 2019.

Desbordes said she wants to test one prevalent hypothesis about how MBCT works in depressed patients: that the training boosts body awareness in the moment, called interoception, which, by focusing their attention on the here and now, arms participants to break the cycle of self-rumination.

“We know those brain systems involved with interoception, and we know those involved with rumination and depression. I want to test, after taking MBCT, whether we see changes in these networks, particularly in tasks specifically engaging them,” Desbordes said.

Desbordes is part of a community of researchers at Harvard and its affiliated institutions that in recent decades has been teasing out whether and how meditation works.

In the 1970s, when transcendental meditation surged in popularity, Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and what was then Beth Israel Hospital, explored what he called “The Relaxation Response,” identifying it as the common, functional attribute of transcendental meditation, yoga, and other forms of meditation, including deep religious prayer. Benson described this response — which recent investigators say is not as common as he originally thought — as the opposite of the body’s adrenalin-charged “fight or flight” response, which was also identified at Harvard, by physiologist Walter Cannon Bradford in 1915.

Other MGH researchers also are studying the effects of meditation on the body, including Sara Lazar, who in 2012 used fMRI to show that the brains of subjects thickened after an eight-week meditation course.

Work is ongoing at MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute; at HMS and Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine; at the Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance, where Zev Schuman-Olivier directs the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion; and among a group of nearly a dozen investigators at Harvard and other Northeastern institutions, including Desbordes and Lazar, who are collaborating through the Mindfulness Research Collaborative.

Among the challenges researchers face is defining mindfulness itself.

The word has come to describe a meditation-based practice whose aim is to increase one’s sense of being in the present, but it has also been used to describe a nonmeditative state in which subjects set aside their mental distractions to pay greater attention to the here and now, as in the work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.

Another challenge involves sorting through the many variations of meditative practice.

Recent scientific exploration has largely focused on the secular practice of mindful meditation, but meditation is also a component of several ancient religious traditions, with variations.

Even within the community practicing secular mindful meditation, there are variations that may be scientifically meaningful, such as how often one meditates and how long the sessions are.

Desbordes herself has an interest in a variation called compassion meditation, whose aim is to increase caring for those around us.

Amid this variation, an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has become something of a clinical and scientific standard.

The course involves weekly two- or 2½-hour group training sessions, 45 minutes of daily work on one’s own, and a daylong retreat.

The mindfulness-based cognitive therapy used in Desbordes’ current work is a variation on that program and incorporates elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves talk therapy effective in treating depression.

The science behind meditation

At Headspace we see meditation as both a practice rooted in ancient history and a topic of modern science. This is why we are as equally committed to providing authentic expertise in meditation and also studying the science of meditation. Science has been an integral part of the Headspace business since day one. We recognize that the only way to know if we are achieving our goal of improving the health and happiness of the world is to measure it. That's where the research comes in.

There are over 2,000 meditation apps out there, but Headspace is one of the only ones committed to advancing the field of mindfulness meditation through clinically-validated research on our product.

We are currently in progress on research studies with large national institutions that could be among the largest mindfulness meditation trials ever conducted.

We are committed to ensuring Headspace can actually make an impact in our lives.

7-person, in-house science department led by Chief Science Officer Dr. Megan Jones Bell, who has +14 years of experience running National Institutes of Health (NIH) and European Research Council (ERC)-funded clinical trials on digital health interventions.

Currently in-process on 65+ research studies to scientifically validate the Headspace approach to meditation. The majority of these studies are being conducted by external third-party researchers with no association with Headspace.

Studies are in partnership with 35+ of the most prestigious scientific research institutions and organizations such as Stanford and USC, run by leading mindfulness experts.

25 published studies show the impact of Headspace on outcomes such as stress, focus, and compassion

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*