The Science of Mindfulness

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The practice of meditation may at first seem counterintuitive or foreign to the Western mind. With the abundance of digital technologies and entertainment options available to us, why would anyone abandon these luxuries to sit alone in silence. Surely there are more productive ways one ought to spend their limited time here on earth.

Yet meditation has become a recent cultural phenomenon.  According to one study, the number of people practicing meditation has tripled since 2012. The benefits of meditation have been boasted by a wide range of professions including athletes, musicians and educators. Furthermore, many practitioners have claimed that the practice can aid with a number of physical and mental ailments.

The intention of this article is to provide an objective account of what modern-day science is telling us about the benefits of meditation. While there are many different types of meditation techniques, I want to focus on one of the more popular practices known as mindfulness meditation.  As described by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, the practice involves, 

“A quiet awareness without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sense of ‘non-difference’ between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents – the various sounds, sights and other impressions of the surrounding environment”

Scientific Studies on Mindfulness Meditation

Scientific study into the practice of mindfulness has significantly increased over the past decade. While studies have pointed to a vast array of benefits from mindfulness meditation ranging from alleviating ailments such post traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure, some of these claims have been called into question due to poor experimental design. As Thomas Plante has noted in Psychology Today, many mindfulness studies do not incorporate randomized control trials in which meditation is compared to other established available treatments. 

However, there are a couple of key areas where concrete evidence is stacking up about the benefits of meditation. Some of these include,

  1.  A long-term meditation practice can increase resilience to stress

Meditation enables us to respond better to stressful situations. Studies have demonstrated that meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ reactions to events.  It seems that there are long-term effects in reducing the intensity of stress amongst long-term meditators. As noted in Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s book Altered Traits,

These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”

2. Improved Attention

The practice of mindfulness meditation requires an individual to be conscious of their wandering thoughts and to continue to bring their attention back to their breath. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that this would improve one’s ability to focus. Evidence has supported this claim.  

In one longitudinal study published in Springer’s Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers evaluated the attention span of individuals before and after they attended a 3-month meditation retreat. They found that after the retreat meditators were able to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.  After reassessing these participants 7 years after the retreat, many of the mental improvements were sustained amongst the participants. [1] 

3. May reduce psychological bias 

Humans are fraught with cognitive biases that distort our interpretation of reality. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions in instances where we have little evidence to support our beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,  

The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly upon the quality of the story they can tell about what they see even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence should be critical to our judgement is missing – what we see is all there is.

There is preliminary evidence that demonstrates that mindfulness reduces negativity bias which is our tendency to focus on negative events rather than positive even when they are equal in intensity. In one study, participants were shown images that induce positive (ie. babies) and negative emotions (ie. pain) while having their brains scanned. Participants who actively practiced mindfulness meditation were shown to be less reactive when they were shown negative images than participants who had no meditation practice.

Conclusion  

While research on mindfulness is still forthcoming, it is important to note that the practice is not a panacea for dealing with issues related to mental clarity and wellbeing. For those dealing with mental distress it can work as an aid in conjunction with other scientifically proven techniques.

From a personal perspective, I see the value of adopting a ‘mindfulness mindset’. That is, it enables us to view events from an objective perspective and refrain from jumping to conclusions or devising narratives to make sense of the unknown.  That is to say, it allows us to see reality how it really is.

Hope you enjoyed this article till next time,

AA


[1] Of note all participants in the study reported that they continued to meditate after the retreat to some degree.

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