We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behaviour. Eileen Luders, neuroscientist, UCLA
Below you can read key pieces of research on various impacts of mindfulness. Or, go here to read a broad summary of the multiple benefits of mindfulness.
The brain has been shown to be more malleable than it was previously thought. Neuroscience research indicates that meditation practice over time brings about positive changes in the brain’s structure and function. With repeated practice, you get trait change, not just state change – new defaults are created.
We now know that the brain is the one organ in our body built to change in response to experience and training. Richie Davidson, Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin
Changes in the brain are one way of evidencing the impact of mindfulness, but being mindful is a fully embodied state and should not be reduced to activity in the brain.
Science is providing evidence of mindfulness’ value
Modern day scientific research and neuroscience is backing up the positive reports that meditators have been giving for many years.
Below are summaries of some key research into this field. Many more studies have been, and are being, conducted, suggesting a variety of benefits of mindfulness.
Happier, less stressed and improved immune function
Richie Davidson and colleagues conducted, now much-cited, research into mindfulness in 2003. Workplace participants undertook an 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course. The MBSR workplace participants were tested before and after the course. There was a control group.
After the course they found that there was more activity in the left prefrontal cortex (associated with positive emotions), indicating participants were happier and less stressed. This correlated with self-reports and was sustained 4 months later. Also there was an improvement in immune function in the participants. This was demonstrated by an increase in antibody response to flu vaccine among the meditators and this correlated with the brain activity shift.
Meditation can remodel the brain to strengthen the qualities that psychologists say are crucial components of happiness: resilience, equanimity, calm, and a sense of compassionate connection to others.Richie Davidson
Richie Davidson is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin and is a pioneer in affective neuroscience – the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion.
Less reactivity to stress
In their 2010 study, Holzel, Lazar et al scanned the brains of participants of an 8 week MBSR course before and after the course.
There was shrinkage in the amygdala, indicating less reactivity to stress. This was aligned with the group’s subjective experiences. The more stress-reduction people reported the smaller the amygdala became. The control group did not show these brain changes.
Brain changes related to learning and memory, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking
A 2011 study investigated pre-post changes in grey matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR programme.
The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking. This included an increase in grey matter in the left hippocampus and temporo-parietal junction
This research was carried out by Holzel, Lazar and colleagues.
Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School
Slowdown in age-related thinning of cortex – associated with cognitive functioning
In a controlled study in 2005, Sara Lazar and colleagues conducted MRIs and compared cortical thickness of experienced local meditation practitioners and non-meditators.
They observed increased grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the meditators, an area of the brain important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants. This suggests that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning.
Cortical grey matter shrinks in most people as they age. The cortical grey matter, amongst other things, controls processing speed of the brain, memory, ability to learn new skills, and thinking in general.
Maintaining cellular health as we age
Nobel prize winner, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and colleagues conducted a study in 2015, “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.”
They found that some forms of meditation, particularly concentration practices, may preserve the length of telomeres. Telomeres are strips of atoms at end of the chromosomes that protect us from age-related illnesses and symptoms of various kinds. Stress can whittle down telomeres. Meditation can reduce stress arousal and increase positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.
Mindfulness for reducing depression relapse
‘Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse’ by Zindel, Segal, Williams, Teasdale, was published in 2002. MBCT is a course, created from adapting MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) and combining it with cognitive behavioural ideas. MBSR is a classic, evidence-based meditation course.
Clinical trials showed that MBCT reduces the likelihood of relapse of depression from between 70-80% to between 30-40%. MBCT is at least as good as using anti-depressants for preventing the relapse of depression, but without the side-effects.
Many people who do relapse after attending the MBCT programme, say they recover more quickly and don’t become so deeply depressed.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) approved MBCT in 2004 and it is now available through NHS, where provision is available.
People are less happy when mind-wandering
In their much cited research, Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert polled over 15,000 people. They found that people’s minds wander on average 47% of the time. Matt and Daniel developed an iPhone app that would randomly contact participants to find out what they were doing, how happy they were and whether their mind was on what they were doing. If their mind was elsewhere the app requested information about whether the mind wandering was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
The research found that whether or not they were happy was not so much dependent on the activity but, rather, on whether the mind was on the activity. Mind wandering typically reduced happiness.
Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged. Killingsworth
Mindfulness reduces stress during exam period in university students
At Cambridge University, staff were keen to find the best ways to support students in relation to the commonly experienced increased stress during the examination period. In 2017 they conducted some research in employing mindfulness to assess its value in this context. A cohort of students undertook an 8 week, face-to-face, group-based mindfulness course. Students were also encouraged to practice meditation at home, starting at 8 minutes, increasing to 15 to 25 minutes. The results showed that this intervention had a positive impact in reducing stress during the examination term. Students who completed the mindfulness course, also reported increased feelings of well-being.
Students who had been practising mindfulness had distress scores lower than their baseline levels even during exam time, which suggests that mindfulness helps build resilience against stress.Dr Julieta Galante from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge, who led the study.
More on mindfulness research…
If you are interested in finding out more about research into mindfulness, check out the following:
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