Mindfulness – The Science Behind the Hype

Photo by Francesca Jackson
Photo by Francesca Jackson
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The Challenge: ‘Mindfulness’ is on everyone’s lips at the moment – but is it just another fad, or is there something more to the hype?
The Science: Studies are showing that the practice of mindfulness can actually change the way your brain works, bringing both long-term emotional and physical benefits!
The Solution: Practice mindful meditation for twenty minutes a day, and judge the results for yourself!

Everyone is currently talking about ‘mindfulness’. It seems to be all things to all people – science for the spiritual people, spirituality for the scientists, meditation for those who don’t believe in meditation, and rational self-improvement for the irrational. Its blend of modern psychological science and ancient meditational technique has become deeply appealing in an age which is increasingly seeing the scientific/rational and the spiritual splinter from each other – often leaving a gap in the psyches of those who choose one over the other. Mindfulness has been around for almost forty years, but has only recently exploded into mass popularity. As a consequence, there are plenty of people who view it as just another dubious fad with little basis in reality. However, science is increasingly showing that mindfulness techniques can have some seriously impressive and perfectly tangible effects upon the brain and body.

Mindfulness-Aided Recovery

Mindfulness is an umbrella term encompassing a number of techniques which aim to enable the practitioner to focus entirely upon the sensations and feelings of the present. The aim is to bring the mind to a place of calm and quiet, without ruminative distractions. To live in the moment, and really to relate to the here and now. It may sound like an odd concept, but practicing mindfulness exercises has been proven to have a wide range of benefits. One study on people suffering from the skin condition psoriasis discovered that, amazingly, the skin of those who practiced mindfulness-based meditations during their therapy cleared far quicker than those who did not. Furthermore, mindfulness exercises have proven incredibly effective in reducing rates of relapse among recovering substance abusers, as well as being of enormous help to those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression and OCD.

Calming The Mind

Why is this? Well, certain aspects of mindfulness’ ability to help humans can be explained relatively easily. Its effect on illnesses like OCD and depression, for example, may well have a lot to do with the fact that a large part of the aim of any mindfulness exercise is to pull the attention away from extraneous, ruminative, or distracting thoughts and to focus entirely upon the present. As excessive rumination and intrusive thought-patterns are strongly associated with such illnesses (as well as other stress-related mental health problems), training oneself to effectively ‘switch off’ such thoughts is naturally of enormous benefit. It can also be used in such a manner to deal with cravings in the case of substance abuse – and even if one is on a diet! However, this does not explain quite why mindfulness is so helpful for people with more ostensibly ‘physical’ conditions like psoriasis. It’s also notable that those who practice mindfulness report that they are generally more focused, have greater executive mental function, are more empathetic, and far less likely to reach mental and physical ‘burnout’ than those who do not. Why is this?

Brain Changes

The short answer is that nobody is entirely sure. However, studies have shown that the brains of those who practice mindfulness techniques have tangible structural differences to those who do not. For a start, mindfulness appears to induce what is known as a ‘left-shift’ in the brain – i.e. the left frontal lobes are enhanced by mindfulness-based meditation and so forth. The left frontal lobes are associated with positive feelings like enthusiasm and motivation, while the right are associated with things like the hypervigilance which comes with stress. Imaging of the brains of those who practiced mindfulness-based meditation has revealed that activity measurably decreases within the amygdala (the region of the brain which is responsible for processing a lot of stress and anxiety), and increases in the left frontal lobes and other areas of the brain responsible for things like empathy and positivity. If practiced over several years, mindfulness has a neuroplastic effect resulting in the build-up of those areas and subsequent long-term changes to the practitioner’s attitudes, moods, and life in general. Interestingly, it has been noted that the improvement in recovery times and immune function which is also associated with mindfulness seems to grow in line with this left-shift – the further the development of the left frontal lobes has progressed, the greater the benefit to the immune system, Norman Farb from the University of Toronto has also noted that those who practice mindfulness are also able to alter their points of self-reference. In essence, this means that they are able to observe their psychological functioning and processes with a good deal more clarity than those who do not – giving them an ‘outsider perspective’ which in turn gives them greater levels of self-awareness and thus control over rogue mental stressors.

Applying The Findings

So what can you do to harness these great and apparently lasting benefits of mindfulness? Well, it’s fairly simple – practice mindfulness. A mindfulness-based meditation takes some getting used to, but it becomes a lot easier with practice. You don’t have to just meditate, though. The principles of mindfulness can be easily applied to everyday life – simply make a point of focusing upon the present, of giving what you’re doing your all without being distracted by flyaway thoughts and other such extraneous things. If this is too difficult, then build up to it by making a point of living mindfully for just twenty minutes a day. Pretty soon, you’ll find that your brain adjusts to the new paradigm, and living mindfully becomes not only easier, but your natural way of doing things!

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Mel Fuller

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