Mindfulness has received a lot of attention in the past decade for its beneficial effect on stress reduction, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. But, is there a connection between mindfulness and the brain? Read on for what research has to say about the connection.
Mindfulness can be described in a variety of ways including, but not limited to, a state of mind or state of being. It has been described as an awareness of, and nonjudgmental attention on, immediate experiences, both internally and externally (4). This can be done not only as part of meditative practice, but also as a general mindset applied during daily activities. Mindfulness is a practice of responding to a myriad of stimuli that cross one’s attention, including thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, with openness and acceptance (2, 4).
A primary means in which individuals practice mindfulness is through meditation. Contrary to popular opinion, meditation is not clearing the mind but rather paying attention to whatever crosses one’s mind as it occurs without judgment. Although meditation is an important aspect of Eastern religions, it doesn’t have to be practiced in conjunction with a particular set of beliefs. Mindfulness has also been applied in therapeutic settings for treatment of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders (1). The positive effects of mindfulness have long been reported firsthand by those who practice it, however, now researchers are also learning more about the intricate changes in the brain that occur to produce these benefits.
Mindfulness meditation has demonstrated positive effects on several functions in the brain such as attention, body awareness, and emotion regulation.
- Attention: The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is responsible for sustaining focused attention on objects while disregarding distractions. Neuroimaging has shown positive effects of long term meditative practice including both increased activity in the ACC as well as increased size which signifies more connections and better regulation of attention (1,3).
- Body Awareness: The insula is responsible for awareness of bodily sensations. This area has been researched heavily for its association with eating disorders. Research has found both changes in function and structure of these related areas, specifically greater size and density of grey matter, for people engaged in regular meditation practice (1- 4). Benefits include increased awareness of, and accuracy of, bodily sensations.
- Emotional Awareness: Increased body awareness also has important implications for emotional awareness, which is necessary to be able to regulate emotions and increase empathy (3, 4)
- Emotion Regulation: Mindfulness also has direct effect on the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which is responsible for emotional regulation. This is executed by “turning down” the region responsible for emotional processing and reactivity and “turning up” the area responsible for emotion regulation. This results in enhanced control over emotions (3).
Long term practitioners of mindful meditation show the greatest changes in brain structures but short term practice can also exhibit some of these enhancements (1, 4).
4 quick tips to help you benefit from mindfulness:
- Start small. Incorporate just a few minutes of mindfulness into your daily routine.
- Practice. Complete a 1 minute mindfulness exercise by focusing on your breathing while keeping your eyes open. Check your mind wandering and focus attention back on your breath as needed. Try to keep your breathing at a normal pace.
- Be mindful anywhere. You don’t need a fancy meditation room or a totally quiet space. Just sit back wherever you are and focus your attention on an object nearby. Observe it, don’t study it or think about it, just observe it for what it is. Try to do this for a few minutes at a time.
- Modernize your mindfulness. You can download mindfulness apps on your phone or tablet for daily reminders and other exercises. Some good options include Relax Melodies, Omvana, and Headspace. (Though some do have fees that may apply).
This post was written by Laché Wilkins, Research Assistant at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt
Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicine, 40, 1239-1252. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0033291709991747.
Farb, N. S., Segal, Z. V., & Anderson, A. K. (2013). Minfulness meditation training training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention. SCAN, 8, 15-26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss066.
Holzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1745691611419671.
Manuello, J., Vercelli, U., Nani, A., Costa, T., & Cauda, F. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and consciousness: An integrative neuroscientific perspective. Consciousness and Cognition, 40, 67-78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.12.005