by Ruth Farenga
Ancient civilisations have engaged in meditation for millennia. Our modern, western world is certainly turning more attention to the matter. With Science playing such a large part in our lives, I think it’s quite natural to stop and ask: what does the research say? And what evidence is there that meditation and mindful living can improve our health and wellbeing? This blog will touch on the science of mindfulness; what effect Mindfulness has on the brain and what evidence there is to show the impact of MBCT courses.
These were my first questions when I came across the field many years ago. Encouragingly, I did find much evidence to back-up the claims. This lead me to a life-changing book ‘Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams, followed by an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course, before I went on further to train as a teacher. I had read how beneficial the course had been on peoples’ health and I wanted to work on mine.
The Science of Mindfulness: Neuroplasticity
A major scientific discovery relevant to Mindfulness was that the brain has ‘plasticity’, otherwise known as Neuroplasticity. This discovery in the late 20th century that our brains are flexible, and can develop even as we get older, meant that we are no longer, as previously thought, at the mercy of inevitable brain deterioration.
Instead, we can invest time to develop our brains and ultimately, improve our mental health J
What effect does being Mindless have on the brain?
A Harvard study by Daniel T Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth in 2010 found that people spent 47% of their ‘awake time’ thinking about something other than what they are doing, in a state of mind-wandering. Essentially, this is time lost in thought….being mindless.
What’s the harm, I hear you say, in a bit of day-dreaming?
Well, there isn’t, in small doses, but it can be problematic if large amounts of time are spent worrying, ruminating or constantly rehashing negative thoughts. Scientists observed that this rumination causes the release of cortisol or adrenaline (stress hormones) from the amygdala within the brain. Short-term, this makes us more alert, but long-term, this sends the amygdala into overdrive by releasing too much adrenaline and cortisol. This is a contributory factor to people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression.
How does Mindfulness change this state?
In my first blog, ‘What is Mindfulness?’, I shared why I think meditation is often not a quick fix. Instead, over the course of 8 week MBCT programmes, research has shown that a number of positive developments occur.
Professor Mark Williams, former head of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, looked at research to show the impact of this course on different parts of the brain.
Here’s the technical bit, so bear with me!
Essentially, Williams reports that by following Mindfulness meditation training, the insular, part of the neocortex brain (from which empathy and bodily sensations are processed) becomes uncoupled with the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with narrative and where people create ‘stories’ about themselves.
When the two parts of the brain uncouple, it activates compassion in the brain without creating stories or ‘rumination’ in the mind. So people can essentially feel good, without worry.
When people are experiencing low moods, such as stress, anxiety or depressive periods, their ability to rationalise their way out of the situation decreases. Mindfulness meditation provides a headspace which allows us to be less tangled in thoughts and emotions.
People are less frantic.
Multiple studies have shown that MBCT courses are at least as effective as anti-depressants (without the side-effects). It also, for example, reduces relapse into depression (for those with 3 or more episodes) by half. Click here for the full analysis.
So the great news is that, besides ancient philosophers and great spiritual leaders advocating meditation, there are also top modern scientists supporting the science of mindfulness too! And we’ve only just got started! With many new studies being commissioned, I expect much more evidence to appear in years to come.
If you are interested in taking an 8 week Mindfulness course then click here for more information or feel free to get in touch.