The Mechanisms of Mindfulness
28 February 2016
Blog by Dr Kate Lemerle, PhD, Founder & Senior Psychologist
Institute for Applied Positive Psychology
There’s no doubt that evidence is stacking up to show that practicing Mindfulness has a positive effect on psychological function and overall quality of life . In the medical field, teaching patients with serious illnesses to engage in Mindfulness practices not only improves mood states, it seems to have an enhancing effect on treatment outcomes for conditions from cancer to fibromyalgia.
Studies on the efficacy of Mindfulness have also shown that it can significantly reduce occupationally related psychological problems in populations as diverse as therapists in training to top executives. Within the industrial–organizational sector, transfer of training has been shown to improve with Mindfulness training , and even in poor work environments (for example, with unsupportive management), employees who practice Mindfulness were less likely to be negatively affected.
Mindfulness is defined as a form of meditation that short-circuits reactive, automatic stress responses by focusing awareness, appreciation, and nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s present experience. The practice of Mindfulness brings mental processes under greater voluntary control by learning to direct one’s attention to bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and the surrounding environment, thereby turning down the intensity of intrusive or even non-existent stimuli such as imagined outcomes of an event that has not even happened (ruminations) .
At a neurophysiological level, Mindfulness practice has been shown to bring about substantial changes to the brain. One longitudinal study investigated changes in brain grey matter concentration and found increases in grey matter concentration within the left hippocampus, as well as in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in subjects who practiced Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) compared with controls. Significant increases in alpha and theta activity have been observed during meditation .
Zeidan (2014) provides a succinct overview of current understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms associated with Mindfulness practice, in particular citing evidence for a “staged” process of development whereby “top-down” brain mechanisms that support regulation of lower-level afferent processing are initially engaged in early stage training, indicated by greater activation in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate gyrex (ACC) and deactivation of the thalamus and the amygdala. He reports that at later stages or following more sustained practice, there’s a “decoupling” between brain mechanisms supporting appraisals of sensory processing, indicated by decreases in higher- order brain activity (PFC) and increases in sensory processing brain regions (anterior insula, somatosensory cortices) which shows up as significant reductions in neural structures associated with emotional processing (amygdala) and increased thickness in brain regions associated with sensory awareness (insula), which seems to underlie cognitive reappraisal processes (i.e., reinterpreting the meaning of an event). Thus even brief Mindfulness training seems to not only affect regulatory mechanisms associated with emotional sensitivity but enhances cognitive processes such as perspective-taking.
Long-term practice of Mindfulness, according to Zeidan’s review, promotes different brain processes, namely a shift in cognitive processing such that the cognitive state of mindfulness meditation experienced by beginner meditators transforms into a trait or temperament that continues beyond the formal mindfulness meditation practice. During meditation, they exhibit increased activation in brain regions associated with cognitive control, reward processing, and sensory processing resulting in perceptual and attentional stability. That is, they report a significant decrease in appraisal-making or cognitively interpreting experiences such as pain, thoughts, emotions, or external events. In layman terms, they are more acutely aware of ongoing sensory events (either internal or external) but experience significantly reduced “mind wandering” and self- focused evaluations or interpretations of these events especially those associated with negative mood states. This perceptual change has been linked to reductions in grey- matter volumes in the amygdala and left-sided caudate.
As our understanding of brain changes associated with interventions such as Mindfulness increases, so too does the potential for mindfulness- based treatment approaches involving individuals learning, via neurofeedback, how to modulate health- related outcomes such as pain, emotional activation (e.g. anger), cravings, and dysfunctional thoughts. Apart from giving patients the power to manage their own brains – and hence optimise the mind – the added benefit of reducing the need for pharmaceuticals, as well as developing person-specific targeted treatments is obvious.
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