Mindfulness is currently a very hot topic. It seems like every health website, magazine and newspaper is touting the benefits of meditation and yoga practices. Wired posted an article on how meditation can calm the anxious mind and help one manage emotions, Shape magazine relays that meditation can provide greater pain relief than morphine, while many other articles convey that mindfulness will help with weight loss, sleep, disordered eating, and even addiction. Amidst all of the articles promoting mindfulness we also see the backlash—a New York Times op-ed from October 2015 calls for us to take a step back and remember that mindfulness has not been proven to be the panacea to our society. Personally, as a stressed out graduate student, I wonder if a mindfulness practice would increase my happiness and well-being, and as a neuroscientist I wonder what is true and how does it work, so I recently attended a lecture on the topic given by Dr. Sara Lazar, who works at Harvard Medical School and Mass General Hospital as a leading neuroscientist in the field of meditation.
Dr. Lazar started her “Neural Mechanisms of Mindfulness” lecture with the basics. She defined stress as wanting or expecting things to be different than they actually are, and offered the simple idea that the key to reducing stress is to understand and accept things as they actually are. This acceptance involves making your expectations realistic, acknowledging the imperfection of situations, and finally, knowing that right now in this very moment everything is okay. The last point is indeed, what mindfulness meditation is. Noting that there are many types of mindfulness techniques, Dr. Lazar clarified what she means by mindfulness meditation, telling us it is the practice conscious awareness of the moment—accomplished by focusing on your breath and on the primary sensations you are experiencing, without any judgement of those sensations. The above points show a logical reasoning for why mindfulness meditation could help reduce stress, but what is the neurological evidence? How can scientists prove that one mental behavior is changing your state of mind?
The Lazar research group tackled this question by recruiting people who had never meditated before and splitting them up into two groups: one experimental group had an 8 week mindfulness meditation intervention, and the other control group did not. The 8 week experimental group had a weekly meditation class and a recommended 40 minutes a day of meditation while the control group did not go through the mindfulness classes or meditate at all; thus the study aimed to measure meditation specific effects. The design of this experiment was crucial because (as is the case with any scientific study) without a control group for comparison it is near impossible to make any conclusions about how the experimental conditions are affecting the experimental . At the end of the 8 weeks, the team studied the differences in amount of gray matter within the brains of each person by using fMRI neuroimaging techniques. The participants’ brains were imaged before and after the 8 week duration of the experiment. The results showed that people who practiced mindfulness mediation (but not the control group) had increased their gray matter (compared to their own baseline) in four different regions: the posterior cingulate (associated with mind-wandering and self-relevance), left hippocampus (important for learning and memory), temporo parietal junction (helps with perspective taking, empathy and compassion), and pons (aids in communication between brain stem and cortex as well as sleep ). These areas are varied in function (hence the links to explore for yourself!) but to generalize, it appears that meditation is changing the brain in places that are important for focus, empathy and compassion, and emotional regulation. The researchers also reported decreased amgydala gray matter; a brain region associated with fear and perceived stress. [side note: increase in gray matter means an increase in cell body size or dendrite arborization and vice versa for decrease, so it is not a perfect measurement of increasing the function of the area but rather an indirect indication that the area may be more active] What is solid about this study is that it correlates change in brain structure with the reports from the participants in the study. The group who underwent mindfulness training reported decreased stress, anxiety, mind-wandering and insomnia, as well as increased quality of life as compared to those who did not practice meditation. To make the correlation a little stronger, the researchers also measured cortisol, a stress hormone, and found decreased levels of cortisol within the participants who underwent mindfulness meditation intervention.
Beyond this initial study,1 Dr. Lazar’s lab has continued to elucidate the neural mechanisms behind self-reported effects of mindfulness mediation. Their group has found that mindfulness meditation decreases bipolar2 and general anxiety disorder symptoms3, and have proposed that increased gray matter in the pons may be the area underlying reports of increased psychological well-being4. This correlation of brain regions with participant self-reporting, using proper controls and a consistent method of mindfulness mediation, really seems to be a good way to begin to understand how we can use our minds to help heal our own minds. The stressed graduate student part of me is convinced enough to give mindfulness mediation a try, and the neuroscientist part of me is excited to see what further investigation tells us as the field continues to ask how quieting our thoughts can alter our brains and even our bodies5.
Dr. Lazar stressed in her lecture that meditation should really be learned properly, as it can be very hard for us to change our state of minds. Meditation is not simply sitting in silence, but is instead a “state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant”6.If you want to give mediation a try, here is a list of answers to frequently asked questions put together by the Lazar Lab and this is another cool blog post by Sam Harris on various forms of meditation with some tips on how to get started.
- Holzel, B. et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 191, 36-43 (2011).
- Stange, JP et al. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for bipolar disorder: effects on cognitive functioning. J Psychiatry Pract. 6, 410-419 (2011).
- Holzel, B. et al. Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training. Neuroimage Clin. 2, 448-58 (2013).
- Singleton, O. et al. Change in Brainstem Gray Matter Concentration Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention is Correlated with Improvement in Psychological Well-Being. Front Hum Neurosci. 8, 33. (2014).