As I’ve been practicing mindfulness in my own life, I’ve noticed some significant changes. These include a better ability to tolerate stressful situations, ability to more quickly change the course of a bad mood, as well as a decreases in conflict in my relationships. All of these things are great, and they prove to me that mindfulness has helped. This personal experience is powerful, and has motivated me to use these tools to help my patients. Of course, I know that its not just me who feels this way. Many of my colleagues, patients, and friends who have worked to become more present in their lives have reported these benefits as well.
But what does science tell us about the effects of mindfulness? As a psychologist, I am trained to look at the evidence to determine whether an intervention is helpful or not. As mindfulness has come to the forefront of mental health interventions in the past 15 years, the amount of research on the subject has vastly increased. While more work needs to be done to fine tune the methodology of studies, the body of research supports the idea that mindfulness can improve our lives. In general, studies have found improvements in the following areas, among many others:
- immune system functioning
- chronic pain
- relationship satisfaction
- response to stress
- ability to pay attention
What is of tremendous interest, at least for me, are studies that have looked at how mindfulness training can significantly change the structure of our brains. Dr. Sara Lazar, from Harvard University, is a leading researcher in this area. To read more about her work, go here: https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/home. She has used MRI techniques to compare the brains of people before and after they completed a period of regular, daily meditation practice. The MRI results were able to detect changes in the brain, such as an increase in gray matter in certain areas of the brain. This increase suggests a greater capacity for functioning.
Dr. Lazar has found that the amount of gray matter in the brains of the meditators became larger in areas that are involved in working memory. She also found that the decrease in gray matter that often comes with age was mitigated in the group of meditators. In other words, this part of their brains shrank less as they aged than that of those who did not meditate. In addition, she found an increase in gray matter in the area of the brain that involves perspective taking, empathy, and compassion.
A key aspect of the research in the effects of mindfulness on the brain involves the concept of “Neuorplasticity”. As Dr. Lazar puts it, this means that our neurons can actually “change how they talk to each other with experience”. The key to the idea of “practicing” mindfulness, and the link with the brain, is that the experience of practicing the key skills of mindfulness over and over, can actually change the brain itself. This is good news, because it suggests that we do not have to be discouraged about the negative impact of stress and mindlessness on our brains. Instead, we can be motivated to start practicing these skills today!