The Science of Mindfulness

Mindfulness Has moved into the mainstream. Courses are appearing at yoga studios; workshops are being used by many businesses and mindfulness sessions have even been introduced in elementary schools. There are many articles and news reports that tout the benefits of mindfulness. My goal here is to attempt to summarize some of these findings. But first, what is mindfulness and mindfulness meditation?

While mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement, mindfulness meditation is slightly different.

Mindfulness meditation asks us to suspend judgement of the workings of the mind and unleash our natural curiosity about what is happening in the moment, allowing ourselves to be with each moment with warmth and kindness.

One of the longest running mindfulness centers in the country was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness where extensive training and research has been carried out since 1982.  More than 25,000 people have attended the center’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program, including this writer back in 2016. Researchers at the center have documented a range of health benefits including:

  • lower blood pressure
  • lower heart rate
  • reduced stress levels
  • less anxiety
  • deeper relaxation
  • more feelings of well being

What exactly happens in the brain when we practice mindfulness?  In short, a consistent mindfulness practice activates an intentionally created state, which can lead to long term effects that change the structure of the frontal cortex of our brain. Such changes affect the amount of gray matter in certain parts of the brain that impact learning, memory, and regulation of emotions.

Some structural changes involve the amygdala, which is an almond-shaped structure in the brain that controls our ability to feel emotions, such as the flight or fight response. Scientists have long known that that the amygdala becomes activated when we feel threatened. Recent mindfulness research has shown that images of the amygdala in participants of MBSR training show less activation after the mindfulness training than before, confirming that mindfulness practices are impacting the brain in positive ways.

Check out the links below to expand your awareness of this subject.

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