The Science of Mindfulness

In the past 35 years, there has been an increasing interest in researching mindfulness and its effects on the body, brain, and emotional well-being. 

The mechanisms of action - how the practice of mindfulness affects our physiology and psychology - are complex, but have been theorized to include the following:

  1. Reduction of stress and of the researched, potentially detrimental effects of stress physiology on brain and body (see below).
  2. Development of increased awareness of physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and all aspects of one’s internal and external environments. Such awareness offers opportunities to step out of autopilot and conditioned reactions to consciously choose more adaptive, healthy responses – for instance, disengaging from maladaptive thought and behavioural patterns, including those causing vulnerability to stress reactions and psychopathology.
  3. Measurable changes to various areas of the brain, including:
    a) Prefrontal Cortex (Lazar et al., 2005Holzel et al., 2007): executive brain function such as attentional regulation, working memory, affective regulation, impulsivity.
    b) Insula (Lazar et al., 2005; Holzel et al., 2007)
    c) Limbic System (Newberg & Iverson, 2003Holzel et al., 2011)
    d) Hippocampus (Holzel et al., 2011)

THE IMPORTANCE OF STRESS REDUCTION

One significant, researched benefit of mindfulness is stress reduction.

Stress has been demonstrated to have negative effects on the body – including the brain – as well as on psychological health (for references, click here):

a) Telomeres shorten and telomerase levels decrease more rapidly, resulting in accelerated cell aging. 
b) Detrimental effects on prefrontal cortex functioning.
c) Immune function suppression.
d) Psychological distress. 
e) Increased depression. 
f) Decreased job satisfaction. 
g) Disrupted personal relationships. 

Stress also poses potential harm to professional effectiveness:

a) Decreased attention. 
b) Reduced concentration. 
c) Compromised working memory and affective regulation.
d) Compromised decision making. 
e) For physicians, decreased ability to form effective relationships with patients. 
f) For physicians, job burnout and distress: a syndrome of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a sense of low personal accomplishment. Associated suboptimal self-reported patient care and decreased patient satisfaction.

Training in mindfulness, such as through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, has been shown to measurably alter detrimental effects of stress, such as those listed above.

For more information on current research, visit the American Mindfulness Research Association, the Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.