Mind Your Mindfulness: a neuroscience approach
A little while ago, my colleague Giulia wrote a fabulous introduction into mindfulness practice. Before reading this blog, please check hers out first. Special bonus: there are some awesome references to Star Wars!
Indeed, the popularity of mindfulness is on the rise, but many sceptics still see it as a spiritual ritual or *just another* health trend. How do I know? I was that sceptic until very recently, when I began my Master’s in Health Psychology.
Exacerbated by increased pressure at my job, my mind was racing whenever I had a spare minute, causing me anxiety and insomnia. Having a background in neuroscience, I knew that our brains are plastic, meaning they can adapt and change upon different types of regular stimulation. It also became apparent that our mental health needs attention and care, just as our physical health. Therefore, the idea of mental training in the form of mindfulness particularly appealed to me, once I read up on it. Another bonus for me was that I didn’t need to commit to expensive memberships or equipment — a quiet place and 10 minutes of my time was enough. Hearing everyone around me raving about it as well, I finally decided to give it a try.
And results did not disappoint.
Apart from general improvement in anxiety, quick 5–10-minute guided meditation helps me fall asleep and ease my mind when I feel overwhelmed. Now, I personally no longer need proof that it works. Some people do though, so don’t take my word for it — continue reading if you want to find out more about the science behind mindfulness!
Of course, it is important to remember that mindfulness research is still in its early years, with the first randomised controlled trials published in the 1990s and rapidly propagating since. Nevertheless, there is good evidence that regular mindfulness practice causes changes in brain structures and functioning.
The human brain is an incredibly complex structure, and researchers are still far from disentangling all of its potential.
The current state of research into mindfulness is incredibly promising, and mindfulness is one of the health trends that actually lives up to its hype. If I had to present the current state of mindfulness research in one sentence, it would be: “Regular mindfulness practice affects every single part of the brain”.
This is obviously a very simplistic way of putting it, but taken together, published research reports an enormous amount of brain regions involved in meditation practice. And, of course, many brain structures are connected between each other, and interact within the same or overlapping pathways.
In this short blog, I can cover only so much about the neuroscience behind mindfulness, so I focus on its 4 main benefits: improved attention, emotional regulation, self-perception and pain management.
One aspect that mindfulness practice can improve is attention.
Researchers found that at early stages of practice, mindfulness enhances our so-called executive attention, which simply means that our mind becomes better at regulating responses, especially in conflict situations where various responses are possible.
Early stages of meditation also improve our ability to choose what to pay attention to, depending on what is more important in this moment — for example, when you cross the road, your mind will be better at directing your attention to the road and approaching cars, rather than your phone or your companion. More advanced meditators, in turn, experience improved vigilance.
The brain area responsible for these changes is Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Researchers discovered that, in beginner meditators, ACC and other brain areas work harder than usual, just like our muscles when we start exercising. In those who practice meditation for longer, brain activity is actually reduced, meaning that with growing expertise in mindfulness state, our brains don’t require as much mental effort to activate attention.
The same applies to emotion regulation — another benefit of meditation practice.
Good news is, you don’t need a lifetime of practice to experience this, as even short-term training can have the desired effect!
Mindfulness practice leads to reduced emotional arousal, courtesy of the amygdala — an emotional ‘hub’ of our brain. As mentioned in Giulia’s blog, mindfulness helps us to see events in a non-judgemental way, and this is exactly what happens when our amygdala becomes less active with meditation training.
Additionally, changes in brain connectivity between amygdala and frontal lobe suggest that people who practice meditation tend to monitor their emotions rather than suppress them, and experience less anxiety.
Mindfulness can also help those who suffer from chronic pain.
Research suggests that meditators have decreased communication between executive and pain-related brain regions, meaning that their brain hinders pain-related signals to reach the consciousness, which helps us to pay less attention to the pain experience.
Mindfulness is also thought to improve self-esteem, positive self-representation and self-acceptance.
Although these are pretty hard to measure in a person, a set of brain regions that is thought to be involved is called Default Mode Network (DMN). As suggested by the name, DMN is most active when we function by default, for example when we are resting, daydreaming, mind wandering, or thinking about our past or future.
These thoughts are automatic and often tend to be negative. Meditators tend to have reduced activation of DMN compared to those who don’t meditate. This means that when meditators rest, their mind often enters the so-called “flow” state, which is when we focus on the “now” and when most creative processes happen. The alternative of this would be rumination over the past, self-reflections, fears and desires, which can be highly distressing, but thankfully can be improved by mindfulness.
There are many other brain changes associated with mindfulness meditation, and many more benefits that come from regular practice.
According to the neuroimaging findings, it takes time for your brain to grasp mindfulness practice, so it can be hard to stick to it in the beginning — however once you start doing it consistently, your mind will start reaping the benefits.
To practice mindfulness, you don’t need to go to Tibet or spend hours: even 10–20 minutes of daily meditation for 2 weeks can improve your well-being and reduce job strain, distress and irritability.
It is important to remember that most research is done on relatively healthy people, and effects of mindfulness on those with mental health problems can vary. As mentioned in Giulia’s blog, it is by no means a replacement for therapy or medical treatment, and should only be used as a supplementary practice.