Continuous neuroscience research into the benefits of mindfulness has revealed supportive evidence that should encourage you to persist with mindfulness practices. While the neuroscience research into the power of mindfulness, and meditation specifically, is in its infancy, there are enough studies and research review articles to point to some real, measurable benefits.
Scientists still do not fully understand how the mind works but they have been able to identify the impact of meditation on the physical brain through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI). Dusana Dorjee warns us, however, that science is a reductionist approach to the study of the mind and cannot effectively measure the whole range of states of awareness that can be achieved by the long-term meditator. Dusana is the author of
Neuroscience and Psychology of Meditation in Everyday Life: Searching for the Essence of Mind (2017).
How meditation changes the physical structure of the brain
A comprehensive review of neuroscience research into the impacts of mindfulness meditation undertaken by experienced meditators showed that eight regions of the brain were altered. Significantly, the regions of the brain that were positively impacted relate to:
- capacity to be introspective and manage abstract ideas and, importantly, the ability to be aware of our own thinking
- body awareness including touch, pain and proprioception
- attention, self-control and regulation of emotions
- ability to communicate effectively between the hemispheres of the brain (between right and left hemispheres).
Mindfulness meditation and happiness
Happiness can be developed as a skill and mindfulness meditation has a key role in its development. Well-being is increased, according to scientists at Wisconsin-Madison University, when the following capacities are enhanced:
- ability to maintain positive emotions
- rapidly recover from what is experienced as negative
- engage in actions that manifest empathy and compassion
- sustain attention in the present moment (and avoid mind-wandering).
Richard Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler (2015) in their chapter, The Neuroscience of Happiness, draw on their mind research to argue that these capacities can be developed through training, especially mindfulness training and kindness/compassion meditation.
Research on the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015) demonstrates that meditation can reduce stress and increase performance because it switches off the brain’s anxiety- riddled, default-mode network (focused on the past/future) and activates the task-positive network. This latter network focuses on the present moment. As the brain can utilise only one of these networks at any one time, meditation – through creating the task of focusing on the breath, body scan or some other aspect – can activate present mindedness which leads to physical and mental health, while deactivating the default-mode which would otherwise lead to stress and ill-health.
As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we can enhance our performance and the wellness-generating structure of our brains and move from the stress-creating default mode to the task-positive mode of operating in our daily lives.
By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)