I remember being told to take deep breaths when I was stressed out or worried about something. Now, it’s something I tell myself in stressful situations, as I focus on taking long, deep breaths instead of shallow ones. Breathing, mindfulness and meditation are well established techniques for getting a grip on busy thoughts and lives, but why is this so? An article published in Psychiatry Research in January of 2011 offers insight into the science behind how meditation and mindfulness practice helps practitioners with general well being, extending beyond the period of time the individual is actively meditating for. A collaboration of scientists at Harvard Medical School, Bender Institute for Imaging in Germany and the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigated the effects of mindfulness training on individuals both before and after the training. Data showed that compared to controls, individuals who had undergone the training had noticeable changes to brain regions related to memory, emotion regulation and perspective taking.
18 right handed individuals were recruited for the study, 10 females and 8 males. They had to be healthy and not taking medications, in addition to not having any aversion to MRIs (such as metal implants or claustrophobia). 17 individuals were also recruited to serve as controls. The two groups didn’t differ in average age or education.
The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program was an eight week course consisting of weekly meetings, 2 hours each and a 6.5 hour day. Exercises included a body scan (awareness of the body and its position in space and relaxation of the body in sync with breath), mindful yoga and sitting meditation. Participants also received audio recordings of guided mindfulness exercises, 45 minutes long, that they were instructed to practice daily at home on their own. Finally, participants were also told to informally practice mindfulness during every day activities, in order to learn how to integrate it into daily life. Data from a questionnaire designed to assess five factors of mindfulness was collected from 14 participants from each group, and MRI scans were conducted 2 weeks before and after the training. Control participants were also scanned twice (in order to be consistent with both groups.)
Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire
Observing: attending to or noticing internal and external stimuli, such as sensations, emotions, cognitions, sights, sounds, and smells
Describing: noting or mentally labeling these stimuli with words
Acting with awareness: attending to one’s current actions, as opposed to behaving automatically or absentmindedly
Non-judging of inner experience: refraining from evaluation of one’s sensations, cognitions, and emotions
Non-reactivity to inner experience: allowing thoughts and feeling to come and go, without attention getting caught up in them
Scans were compared for each participant, pre to post data. Results of the analysis show that for three of the five facets on the mindfulness questionnaire (awareness, observing, non-judging), there was a significant increase in time spent engaging in these activities for individuals who took the mindfulness training class, compared to controls. Brain scans show an increase in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus in the post scans, with no significant difference in pre scans compared to controls. This means that not only did the participants start out equal in terms of gray matter size in the hippocampus, but the MBSR training worked to increase gray matter in the hippocampus of individuals who took part in the training. There was also no significant change in gray matter in controls from pre to post scans.
Total brain scans also showed clusters of increased concentration in gray matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, tempero parietal junction and the cerebellum. All of these areas are involved in learning, memory, emotional regulation and control, emotional learning and awareness. This study effectively demonstrates that mindfulness training and meditation not only help individuals become more conscious of their inner experience, but the training may also contribute to physical changes occurring in the brain. It is important to note however that some of the changes may be related to things not specific to the program (such as group interaction and stress education), for example, general learning usually increases hippocampal volume, as it is an area of the brain related to learning and memory. Undoubtedly though, the changes observed as a result of the mindfulness training have a positive effect on the well being of participants, as observed by not only increased gray matter, but increased awareness, non-judging and observing, three facets of mindfulness.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36–43. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
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