The Science Behind Mindfulness

by Sarah Silverton

Mindfulness is not only a positive change of mind-set, it can actually change the shape of our brains.

Neuroscience research over recent years has led to understanding that the human brain can change in both structure and activity (known as neuroplasticity) and that this change is directly connected to how we use our brain.

A number of neuroscience studies have specifically involved mindfulness meditators. In 2003, Richard Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn and their colleagues found that people trained to meditate by taking part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme which showed important changes in brain activation in the prefrontal cortex.

mindful2A shift from right-sided activation to more left-sided activation in key areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation was found, suggesting an increase in ability to deal with situations in a more positive and balanced way. The changes found were still evident when people were tested again four months later. This important study also connected the changes in activation in these areas of thebrain to a stronger immune response in the meditators studied (following a “flu” vaccine given at the end of the MBSR training).

Sara Lazar’s 2005 study of experienced meditators found changes in the thickness of the cerebral cortex, with thickness in some areas equivalent to that expected in people 20 years younger. This suggests that there may be a slowing down in experienced meditators of the natural thinning that happens in some areas of the brain as we age.

This evidence suggests that learning to meditate can alter both the structure and activity of our brains, and that these changes positively affect our well-being.

While there are still many questions regarding the details of such changes and how the various areas of the brain interrelate, these studies are very encouraging. The areas of the brain that are linked to helping us regulate our emotions seem to be particularly influenced by meditation practice. Great news for those practicing mindfulness!

Mind–Body Connections

In the West we have traditionally viewed the mind and body to be separate (in contrast to the more holistic approach of Eastern countries), and there has been very little focus on how our body and mind interrelate or function as a whole.

A few studies show interesting ways in which the body and mind may influence each other. In one, patients being treated for psoriasis found that mindfulness practice, used in addition to the standard light treatment offered for this condition, helped their skin heal more quickly. Another study has found that when people are more closely informed and involved in their medical treatment, they get well more quickly.
For ‘a book full of practical wisdom and clarifying detail’ (Mark Williams, co-author of The Mindful Way Through Depression), take a look at The Mindfulness Breakthrough and its practical easy-to-use guide to mindfulness which can help you deal with stress, anxiety and depression.

Vicky Hartley is the Marketing Director and Head of Digital for Watkins Publishing Limited (including Duncan Baird Publishers)