What Science Says About Mindfulness

By: Olivia

Opinions are great. I like opinions. My opinion on mindfulness is that it’s awesome. But when you’re thinking about trying something new, it’s great to have facts. When it comes to the topic of mindfulness, research is being conducted every day to help us understand it better. In this post I am going to share some of the research that tries to explain exactly what is happening in the brain when mindfulness and meditation are in practice as well as the effects on the brain over periods of time.

I am going to be directly summarizing some of the information in Tang, Holzel, and Posner’s article:

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation (2015).

For those of you who would like to read the full 13-pages of research and findings, I have included a link directly to the article below, and I strongly encourage you to read it yourself.

http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v16/n4/pdf/nrn3916.pdf

The first step the authors take is to remind us of a few very important things:

  1. Research on mindfulness is relatively new,
  2. A lot of the research that actually gets through to publication is likely to show positive results and,
  3. Some  studies don’t use the most thorough methodologies.

Does this mean we can’t trust the research? No, it just means we have to use a critical eye when examining results, and that we have to accept the possibility that research conducted in the future may discover new or conflicting results.  

Moving on…

The authors break down mindfulness into three separate categories: attention control, self-awareness, and emotional regulation. There is a great chart included in the article which helps illustrate this breakdown, shown here as well:

screenshot_20170213-211053-2

Box 1. Mindfulness meditation.

The second part of the diagram is showing how the stages of practicing mindfulness can be separated into three parts: a beginner level, an intermediate level, and an advanced level. Some findings suggest that the parts of the brain employed during mindfulness practice change as an individual progresses from one level to the next.

First, let’s talk about what a beginner can expect. In studies conducted to test the effects of mindfulness on attention, one week of practice didn’t seem to change anything significantly. Research in the area of self-awareness also doesn’t generate too much interest for the purposes of this summary. In terms of emotional regulation, however, scans of brain activity in beginners showed some interesting results. Areas like the amygdala and the ventrolateral PFC showed changes which suggest that mindfulness meditation interacts with emotions not by stifling them or suppressing them but by surveying and keeping track of emotions.

In expert practitioners there are different effects in the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is involved in attention and control, shows signs of increased activation in meditators with advanced experience. Unlike beginners, advanced meditators do not activate their ventrolateral PFC as much indicating a more automatic acceptance of emotions instead of the purposeful monitoring of emotions that was evident in beginner practitioners. This would mean a less effortful process of emotional regulation.

Besides these variations across studies, most studies have found that certain parts of the brain do react to meditation practice. These areas are:

  • Frontopolar cortex: meta-awareness
  • Sensory cortices and insula: body awareness
  • Hippocampus:  memory  
  • Anterior cingulate, mid-cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortex:  emotional regulation
  • Superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum: intra/inter hemispherical communication

This article by Tang, Holzel, and Posner surveyed a significant amount research articles that related to different types of meditation and mindfulness. Some of the specific articles they examine reflect more conclusive findings. I am excited to see what research in the areas of mindfulness and meditation will find next and what it can tell us about the effects of mindfulness meditation on our emotional well-being.
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