I have been talking a lot about mindfulness in this blog and I decided it was time to explain why I am so enthusiastic and determined about developing this skill. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment, non-judgmentally, with acceptance and compassion. This can be done informally, as we go about our daily activities, and in formal mindfulness meditation practice. So the question is: what are the benefits of becoming more mindful and accepting of our present experience?
According to Ron Siegel in The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, “a wealth of scientific evidence” shows that mindfulness can have a profound effect on our lives. Researchers have demonstrated “changes in both inner experience and outward behavior” and have recently been able to show changes in “brain functioning and brain structure” due to advances in brain scanning technology.
Richard Davidson, a researcher at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to study the impact of mindfulness training on brain activity. They recruited stressed workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation 3 hours per week over 8 weeks. The other workers served as a control group who were not taught mindfulness meditation. At the start of the study, all the participants had significantly more activity in the right prefrontal cortex, a pattern found in people who are anxious, depressed or hypervigilant (frequently scanning the environment for danger). At the end of the study, the group who were taught mindfulness meditation had significantly more left prefrontal cortex activation than the control group, which is the brain activity pattern for people who are generally content, with fewer negative moods. Additionally, the group of meditators had a greater immune response, indicated by more antibodies than the non-meditators after receiving the flu vaccine.
Sara Lazar, a biological researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, studied MRIs of long-term meditators and non-meditators. She discovered that the meditators had thicker cerebral cortexes than non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, sensory cortex, and anterior insula. Thicker areas of the brain are indicative of enhanced capabilities in those areas. All three areas are involved in paying attention to sensory input and the prefrontal cortex is also involved in working memory–which helps us keep thoughts in our minds long enough for reflection, problem-solving, and decision-making. Research also showed that the degree of thickness was proportional to the amount of meditation experience and the differences were even more pronounced in older participants. In another study, Lazar found increased density in a part of the brain stem involved in the production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice. The most pronounced changes in density occurred in the brains of those who practiced the most. These individuals were also the ones who reported the greatest increase in their sense of well-being.
A school-based program of mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) for second and third graders, ages 7-9, was studied by Lisa Flook and her colleagues at UCLA. The program was provided to students two times per week, for eight weeks, for a total of sixteen 30- minute practice sessions. Children with self-control problems who received the mindfulness training showed greater improvement in their regulatory abilities than children who did not receive the mindfulness training.
To summarize, research has shown significant reductions in anxiety and hypervigilance, improvement in mood, attention, emotional regulation, working memory, and immune response, and promising findings with regards to cognitive functioning as we age. I am most interested in improving my self-discipline, working memory and ability to shift attention from distractions, which will hopefully also help improve my time management skills. What benefits of mindfulness would be most helpful to you?