The practice of mindfulness meditation is in a funny transition period in modern society. Rooted as an ancient Buddhist practice, mindfulness meditation is often looked at by many as more of an “eastern” practice than a legitimate method, backed by science, to accomplish anything from relieving stress to positively impacting the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV. More and more scientists are exploring how and why meditation is actually something to be taken seriously, though, working to understand the science of how what seems like nothing more than sitting still can have such a real effect on humans.
Mindfulness meditation is understood as the psychological process of giving attention and awareness to whatever is happening in the present moment. It’s done by giving focused attention to something like a body part and exploring the sensations you are experiencing both physically and mentally through it. MRI scans in one study showed that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation physically shrink a person’s amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” center. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for awareness, concentration, and decision-making, grows thicker. Through this, your brain actively gets accustomed to using or not using these areas of the brain. “The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh. This transformation means our primal responses to stress are being replaced by thoughtful ones with the aid of mediation.
“I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease,” Taren says. “But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”
When associated with experiencing pain, mindfulness meditation research has shown that advanced meditators report feeling significantly less pain than people who don’t meditate. However, at the very same time, brain scans of those same people show more brain activity in the areas associated with pain for meditators. This finding is contrary to that of studies around things like pain relief drugs, where brain activity in those same areas is actually found to drop with the aid of drugs.
“It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it – by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” says Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”
“I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” Taren adds. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”