The Science of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not a new concept to humanity. The eastern Buddhist traditions have intensely scrutinized it for a long time. However, a relatively new vision for the modern western civilization, similar approaches to life have been adopted by some ancient western philosophies such as Stoicism. Recently modern science had a recently induced interest in the subject. It has also been translated into the medical field with treatment modalities such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). In this article, we looked at what science and medicine have to say about this exciting subject.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be described as bringing attention to the present moment without any judgment. According to mindfulness practitioners, the human mind is constantly jumping around, moving from one thought and feeling to the next without paying attention to what is happening at that moment. Everyone experiences this during her daily commute. When we are driving to work, we are thinking about what to say during the morning meeting. When we are drinking our morning coffee, we are thinking about our afternoon work. Our mind is at home during lunch, thinking about what to cook when our friends come for dinner.  Mindfulness is the exact opposite of this default work mode of the mind. It is the deliberate attention to whatever is happening at that moment rather than thinking about other things. When we are mindful, we are enjoying our lunch when we are eating, listening to what the other person is saying during a conversation, and watching the scenery when we are out for a walk rather than getting lost in our thoughts.

Why is science interested in mindfulness?

The discussion above might look like mindfulness is a self-help methodology that improves well-being rather than a scientific subject. So why is science especially interested in mindfulness? The interest in mindfulness was sparked by research that studied the brains of Buddhist monks who practice meditation to increase their mindfulness. Although mindfulness is not a religious concept, it is an essential part of Buddhist life. Buddhist monks spend hours every day doing meditation to increase their awareness of the moment. Scientists looked at the brains of these monks by using new technologies that help image the brain in real-time, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging. As a result, there were significant structural and functional differences between the brains of these monks and other people. For example, the part of the brain associated with anxiety was minor in the study group. Findings such as this helped the scientists realize that they could use this approach to help patients with anxiety or depression.

How is mindfulness helping patients?

After these studies showed that mindfulness could change the human brain, clinical researchers started to find ways to use this method to help patients. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy was developed to use various techniques such as meditation to help people with different psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical studies have shown that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy was adequate to prevent depressive episodes from happening in patients diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Other studies found that participants in this therapy program had less anxiety, worrisome feelings, and increased well-being and compassion for others. Mindfulness interventions can decrease the perception of pain, helping people with disorders such as fibromyalgia.

How can mindfulness improve the quality of life?

Mindfulness is not only used as a treatment modality but can also be used by people without any medical conditions to improve well-being and quality of life. People use Mindfulness-based stress reduction to reduce stress even if they do not have clinically apparent anxiety. Research conducted on the subject suggests that training the mind in mindfulness can improve focus and attention. It also helps people to work better under stressful conditions. In a study conducted in 2019, improved well-being was observed in healthy people with mindfulness practice. There even might be physical benefits in addition to psychological ones. Studies suggest that mindfulness-based approaches have benefits for the hearth.

Ways to increase mindfulness

The best-known method to increase mindfulness is meditation. Meditation is the practice of growing mindfulness by deliberately directing attention to physical sensations in the body, such as the breath. When practiced regularly, it helps the mind to be more aware of the moment and more mindful in general. Even doing it for 5 minutes every day seems to have beneficial effects. Keeping a mindfulness journal where you take a short break to slow down and check in with yourself also seems like a good option. The simple practice of taking short breaks even for a couple of seconds to concentrate on the breath without doing anything else might help to keep up with mindfulness in a tight schedule. All these practices can be fitted according to the individual plans and lifestyles to help everyone in their day-to-day struggles in life.

Dr. Egehan Salepci

References

1.      Davidson, R. J., & Lutz, A. (2008). Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation. IEEE signal processing magazine25(1), 176–174.

2.      Ludwig DS, Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness in medicine. JAMA. 2008 Sep 17;300(11):1350-2.

3.      Roca, P., Diez, G. G., Castellanos, N., & Vazquez, C. (2019). Does mindfulness change the mind? A novel psychonectome perspective based on Network Analysis. PloS one14(7), e0219793. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0219793

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