The science behind the benefits of mindfulness

FlickR Creative Commons / Courtesy Mitchell Joyce

FlickR Creative Commons / Courtesy Mitchell Joyce

“I feel like I should try meditating with everyone talking about it.” These were the words that came out of my classmate’s mouth as we discussed the science behind mindfulness. What he went on to express is the sentiment that I’ve heard so many other people say, which is basically, “What is that mindfulness thing?” Is there really something to it? To many, meditation can seem like something “out there.” However, what they fail to realize is the benefits it has “in there.”

Research has shown, not just on a behavioral level, but on a neurological level how meditation can alter your brain. People in one study (Davidson et al., 2003) were randomly assigned to either a control group or a meditation group for 8 weeks. During these 8 weeks, participants in the study were trained for 2.5-3 hours per class and attended a 7 hour retreat during the 6th week. They were also asked to meditate for 1 hour per day for 6 days with the help of audiotapes.

Researchers examined brain electrical activity before starting this meditation training, once during the training itself, and 4 months after training ended. They found greater activation in the left-sided anterior of the brain, which is usually an area associated with positive affect, for meditations compared to non-meditators. They also found greater antibodies of the flu vaccine in meditators. These findings broadly tell us that meditation works, at least in the short term. There are significant effects it can have on the brain and immune system.

Yes, it’s true that this was a fairly-intensive protocol with participants asked to meditate for an hour each day. However, extrapolating these findings to a more realistic level may also prove to have some benefit. It may be easy to knock down this type of research and say that “no one meditates that much” or “who has time for this.” However, this shows that there is something to the mindfulness “thing.” More recent research (Rosenkranz et al., 2013) has also shown benefits showing that those who engaged in a mindfulness intervention had less inflammatory stress responses.

Meditation can be a difficult area to navigate. As I’ve said in previous posts, start with where you are. Going from 0 meditation to 1 hour is difficult and often logistically unfeasible. But can you put aside 2 minutes before you head out the door? Just create that little bit of space in your schedule and sense how that quietude and calmness feels in your body. If you feel like you want more time, start extending that 2 minutes little by little. And don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Life happens. This is not meant to be another stressor you have to fit into your life.

So tell us about your experience! Have you tried meditating? Have you experienced any of these benefits? What made you start? What kept you going? Did you hit some speed bumps on the way? Share your thoughts and help other people learn from you!

Citations:

Davidson et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

Rosenkranz et al. (2013). A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 27, 174-184.

Related links:

Rubin Khoddam, Clinical Psychology PhD student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.

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Categories: Blogs by Rubin, Mindfulness, Therapy

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