The science of mindfulness

Mindfulness has become a hot topic, with companies such as Google, Apple, and Nike touting its benefits. But what exactly is mindfulness?
Put simply, it is the skill of bringing our attention and awareness to experiences and events in the present moment and observing these without judgment or evaluation.

A number of factors contribute to a mindful state:

  • Awareness: bringing full awareness to the present moment
  • Being intentional: deliberately or consciously bringing this awareness
  • Being non-judgmental: this is a very important factor – setting aside or not following any mental commentary or judgments
  • Curiosity: adopting a curious approach to what is noticed
  • Openness: noticing new information or staying open to new experiences.

A useful concept is to think of mindfulness as the opposite of “autopilot”. We’re on autopilot when we go through our day or complete tasks without paying attention to what we are doing, are easily distracted, and are likely to have regular “chatter” in our minds that may not be helpful.

Watch this great YouTube video on why mindfulness is important for human beings

The general benefits of mindfulness

The general benefits of mindfulness

A strong body of scientific research, conducted with diverse groups of people, has demonstrated very clearly that people who practise mindfulness experience greater physical and psychological wellbeing, and less stress reactivity.

Some of the specific benefits that have been found include:

Physical benefits:

  • Lowered cortisol response to stress
  • Improvements in immune function
  • Reduced experience of pain
Physical benefits

Emotion benefits

  • Improved ability to manage emotions
  • Less emotional exhaustion
Emotion Benefits

Cognitive or mental benefits

  • Greater cognitive flexibility
  • Reduced error rates
  • Faster reaction times
  • Increased ability to manage distractions
  • Less rumination
Cognitive or mental benefits

Other benefits:

  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Improved task performance
Other benefits
How does mindfulness work?

How does mindfulness work?

As research accumulates on these benefits, neuroscientists have sought to identify exactly what is happening in the brain when people practice mindfulness, including the immediate and longer term benefits.

Let’s have a look at the changes in the brain mindfulness has been associated with:

Shift and switch to flight or fight

  • Mindfulness has been found to positively impact the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain that helps us to decide whether to shift our attention and to switch tasks knowingly and deliberately.  The ACC is also associated with learning from past experiences, which helps support optimal decision-making. When the ACC is not working optimally, you might see a person easily distracted from a task and failing to pay attention to the most important information around them. Imagine how important your ACC would be on a busy hospital ward for example, when called away to attend to one patient, which interrupts the administration of medication to another patient.
  • The hippocampus is our main learning and memory centre. Mindfulness increases the volume and density of the hippocampus and therefore the brain’s working memory, effectively giving us more “space” for noticing and responding to our environments.  With more space, we can respond more effectively to challenging or changing situations.
  • The amygdala is the part of our brain that puts the body into “flight or fight” mode when we feel in danger or under threat. This is an important survival response when we do need to react urgently and quickly, but not so useful if we need to be in a calm state. Mindfulness practice helps to create a less reactive amygdala.

Forming new neural pathways

  • The prefrontal cortex manages what is called “executive functioning”, which includes the higher level brain activities, such as creative thinking, strategic planning and complex decision-making. With mindfulness practice, as the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex thickens. Thickening in the prefrontal cortex improves big-picture, cognitive functions, such as emotional control and perspective taking.
  • The insula is activated when we are conscious of ourselves, including having awareness of our physical body. Consequently, when researchers exposed meditators and non-meditators to unpleasant physical conditions, meditators had greater activity in their insula – or, in effect, they were more aware of this experience. This awareness could help us to notice stress, tension, and discomfort earlier, potentially helping to prevent injury.

That’s a pretty impressive list. In addition to those benefits, with practice, the temporary calm state we experience during mindfulness can eventually become effortless over time.  Essentially, new neural pathways are being formed by practice, enabling us to become more calm and focused as a general characteristic in everyday life.

You can read a meta-analysis of mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits.

Still think it's too soft?

Still think it sounds too ‘soft’?

The perception of mindfulness as ‘soft’ or too ‘abstract’ are some of the common barriers to giving it a go. Check out this article highlighting some other ways mindfulness is being used, including:

  • sports training where basketball players are taught to “get in the zone” by clearing their mind and creating a routine when shooting a free throw.
  • the Quantico US military’s Marine Corps, where soldiers can enrol for an eight-week mindfulness based skills program focusing on dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

What next?

The only thing left to do is to try it out for yourself. The best way to get a feel for mindfulness is to try a few different exercises.

Try either of these web links for some options:

or you could use apps such as Headspace. Once you’ve got the gist down, you can give anything a go in a mindful way, just remember those core qualities from the start of this article.

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