Mindfulness matters to physiologists


Excerpt from a Physiology News feature by Lee de-Wit, @leedewitInstitute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, UK & Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, UK

Our minds are often busy planning the future or thinking about the past. Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of what is happening right now. That might involve becoming more aware of feelings in your body. It might involve becoming aware of the sensations of your breath. It might simply involve becoming more conscious of the fact one’s mind is thinking about the future or the past.

This practise of mindfulness has proved effective in treating certain clinical conditions, and can influence behaviour on a range of tasks. In parallel to this, there is also a large body of evidence showing that mindfulness has a range of measurable outcomes on both neural activity and even neural structures. Research on mindfulness not only helps us to understand this practise per se, but has also increased our understanding of plasticity and localization of functions within the adult human brain. […]

Secular mindfulness without Buddhism

Mindfulness is a relatively recent approach that extracts some of the core teachings from Buddhism and reformulates them as a secular practise to help patients recovering from chronic pain or to deal with stress. This approach was first pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Massachusetts University Hospital. […] Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a secular program of mindfulness training that focused on developing some of the key skills involved in Buddhist meditation and awareness training. He formalised this approach as an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. This model was then further developed by Mark Williams and colleagues at Oxford, who developed the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course. This 8-week MBCT course was developed over 10 years ago, as a treatment to prevent the relapse of patients who have suffered multiple episodes of depression. Two recent meta-analyses have provided evidence that MBCT offers an effective treatment in preventing relapse for patients who have had depression (Kuyken et al., 2016), and in the treatment of mood and anxiety problems in clinical populations (Hofmann et al., 2010).

At its most simple, mindfulness is about becoming more aware of one’s experience of feelings, emotions, thoughts and mental and bodily state in the present moment. […] When you first start, you’ll realise just how much the mind wanders off when you try and focus on a simple aspect of your present moment experience. Critically however, mindfulness doesn’t mean one starts judging oneself for having a mind that wanders off, rather one seeks to acknowledge one’s wandering mind and patiently learn the skill of bringing it back to the present moment.

To really develop this practise, it can be useful to have extended periods of meditation where you focus on areas of your body, or the sensation of your breathing in a formal meditation posture. Mindfulness isn’t just something you do sitting on a mat on the floor however. You can mindfully eat your dinner, mindfully draw a picture, mindfully read an article about mindfulness.

How meditation can change your brain

I sometimes think that one of the most important and under-communicated (to the general public) findings of the last 50 years is just how remarkably similar our brains are. More recently however, there has been an increasing recognition that our brains sometimes differ in ways that have interesting functional and theoretical consequences. […]

In 2004, meditation joined the list of factors that were associated with changes in the brain’s structure. Building on work from the previous year, showing that the brains of experienced meditators had higher levels of coherent activity (Lutz et al., 2004), researchers at Harvard, Yale, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital found that there were also large-scale differences in the structure of certain areas of the brains of experienced meditators (Lazar et al., 2005). These changes were not random, they were found in areas of the brain that could be logically interpreted given the skills practised in meditation. In particular, one of the areas that was larger in experienced meditators was the insula. This is an area of the brain that we know is important in interoception, the perception (visceral, not visual) of our own body. Given that mindfulness often involves the development of a greater awareness of one’s present moment bodily experience, it seems logical that the area of the brain that seems to be involved in that would be one of the areas to be influenced by long-term mindfulness practise.

Read the full article in Physiology News.

References:

Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol 78, 169-183 doi:10.1037/a0018555

Kuyken W, et al. (2016). Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in prevention of depressive relapse: an individual patient data meta-analysis from randomized trials. JAMA Psychiatry 73, 565–574 doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0076

Lazar SW, et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16, 1893–1897.

Lutz A, Greischar LL, Rawlings NB, Ricard M, Davidson RJ (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101, 16369–16373 doi:10.1073/pnas.0407401101

 

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