In recent years, a revolution in science has revealed several important facts related to mindfulness and the brain:
- The adult brain remains open to change throughout the lifespan. This important finding (known as neuroplasticity) suggests that, with the right set of proven science-based mindfulness training and practices, we have the ability to change our brains for the better.
- The mind influences the body, and the body influences the mind. This single, dynamic bidirectional system is known as the mind-body connection and it has led to the establishment of Mind-Body Medicine, which is being researched at major institutions such as Harvard, Stanford and UCSF, among others.
This scientific validation has led to a large and growing body of mindfulness and brain research. According to David Black, Ph.D., the Mindfulness Research Guide tracked 477 mindfulness research publications in 2012, up 20% from the previous year. Because of the increasingly large volume of empirical research in this area, I've decided to share just a few high-level points from studies relevant to shinebright that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness.
Mindfulness can change brain structure and improve our ability to focus
Based on her research in 2005 and 2010, Harvard Medical School Neuroscientist Sara Lazar's brain scans show 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain responsible for improving our ability to focus; strengthening our memory; making us more resilient under stress; fostering our decision making; helping us be more empathetic listeners; and showing more compassion to our colleagues. Specifically, these brain structures include:
- Pre-frontal cortex (responsible for regulating emotions by modulating and inhibiting emotion generative systems, such as the amygdala)
- Right anterior insula (responsible for attention and awareness)
- Left hippocampus (responsible for learning, memory and emotion regulation)
- Tempero-parietal junction (responsible for perspective taking, empathy and compassion)
- Amygdala (responsible for the "fight or flight" response)
The exciting part of this research is that the data provide the first structural evidence for experience-dependent brain plasticity associated with meditation practice. Another piece of important news is that meditation might offset normal age-related cortical thinning.
To read more about Sara's research, or watch her Tedx talk and see pictures of the brain impacted by meditation, visit:
Mindfulness can promote creative thinking
A 2012 study by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato and her fellow researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands demonstrated the impact of Open Monitoring meditation (such as mindfulness) on divergent thinking, a primary driver of creativity and innovation. Colzato used creativity tasks that measure convergent and divergent thinking to assess which specific meditation techniques most influenced creative activities. The meditation techniques analyzed were Open Monitoring and Focused Attention meditation.
In Open Monitoring meditation (e.g., mindfulness) the individual is receptive to all the thoughts and sensations experienced without focusing attention on any particular concept or object.
In Focused Attention meditation the individual focuses on a particular thought or object.
The findings demonstrate that not all forms of meditation have the same effect on creativity. After an Open Monitoring meditation, such as mindfulness, the participants performed better in divergent thinking, and generated many more new ideas than previously. Focused Attention (FA) meditation however, produced a different result. FA meditation had no significant effect on convergent thinking (the process of generating one possible solution) leading to resolving a problem.
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density responsible for perspective taking
A 2011 study by Drs. Britta Hölzel, James Carmody, et al, published “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density” in Psychiatry Research. In the study, anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images were obtained from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants before and after they took the 8-week MBSR program. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls. The results suggested that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and importantly, perspective taking.
Mindfulness increases resiliency to stress and boosts our immune response
Drs. Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn conducted a study in 2003 to examine the impact of an 8-week MBSR program on the mental and physical health of a group of employees at a biotech company. Of the 41 employees in the study, 25 participated in the study and 16 didn't. The electrical activity of each participant's brain was measured before and immediately after the program, and then again 4 months later. The results were impressive. The research found that the meditation group had significant increases in activity in the left side of the brain's frontal area, as compared to the control group. This region of the brain is associated with emotion regulation and positive affect. Davidson's research showed that individuals with greater activation in this region recover more quickly following a stressful event compared with individuals with less activation in this region. The study also revealed a compelling link between mindfulness and immune system functioning. At the end of the 8-week program, all participants were given a flu vaccination. Those who meditated had significant increases in antibodies compared to the control group, suggesting that meditation can help boost the immune response.
Mindfulness strengthens self-compassion, which fosters better emotional coping skills in dealing with life challenges
According to Kristin Neff, a leading researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, mindfulness cultivates deeper levels of self-compassion after 8 weeks of training. Importantly, people with greater self-compassion have more perspective on their problems and are less likely to feel isolated by them. These individuals also experience less anxiety when thinking about their problems. Indeed, there is physiological data to support these findings. The more self-compassionate a person is, the lower their cortisol (stress) levels and higher their heart rate variability (an indicator of one's ability to adapt effectively to stress, and a marker predictive of health and longevity). These results suggest that self-compassionate people are able to deal with the various challenges life throws their way with greater levels of emotional equanimity.
Mindfulness can decrease emotionally reactive behavior
A study by Julie Brefczynski-Lewis et al. in 2007 found that in long-term expert meditators (those with 10,000 or more hours of meditation training), emotional sounds caused lesser activation in the part of the emotional brain known as the amygdala than novice meditators. Additionally, the more hours of meditation training the expert had, the lower the activation of the amygdala. This is important because the amygdala acts as our brain's sentinel, constantly scanning the environment for threats to our survival. The amygdala plays an important role in anxiety and stress and responsible for processing fear and aggression. The results from this study suggest that a long-term meditation practice may be associated with significant decreases in emotionally reactive behavior.