The Neuroscience of Mindfulness
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and later Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy have been demonstrated to be effective in treating a wide range of mental and physical health problems and in promoting a general sense of well-being. Over the past 30 years, as mindfulness has gained acceptance as a secular practice in the west, it has increasingly been seen as a vehicle for training one’s ability to direct their attention and regulate their thoughts, emotions and actions. As a result, its use has spread from medical facilitates and mental health treatment centers to professional sports, corporate business, and public schools.
For more than 15 years neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by Dr. Richard Davidson, have studied the effects of mindfulness and found that mindfulness training produces both cognitive and emotional benefits along with corresponding changes in the structure and function of the brain. These researchers have found that the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus are activated during states of mind wandering or “mindlessness”. However, the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which act to detect salient information, both in our mind and our environment, recognize distractions during mindfulness practice (i.e. sensations, images, feelings, thoughts). The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), amongst other networks, is then activated to disengage from the distracting thought and refocus attention to one’s breath or other anchor for one’s focused mind. The DLPFC then remains activated during periods of sustained attention. Further, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that experienced mindfulness practitioners show greater activation and have thicker brain tissue (i.e. increased gray matter) in the prefrontal cortex and insula, the areas of the brain activated during mindfulness training. These are, of course, key neural networks responsible for attention, executive functioning, and emotional regulation.
Fortunately one does not have to dedicate years of life to meditating in a Tibetan monastery to experience the benefits of mindfulness. Drs. Tang and Posner at University of Oregon found that with 20 minutes a day of mindfulness training over just a 5 day period, undergraduate college students showed improvement, compared to controls, on measures of attention, depression, anxiety, and anger as well as significant decreases in stress related cortisol levels. In separate studies, Dr. Tang and his associates also found that increased myelination in the ACC and corpus callosum were observed between 6 and 11 hours of training and that 4 weeks of mindfulness training resulted in improved efficiency of white matter tracts in the ACC, again an area of the brain associated with self-regulation. The authors suggest that this may provide a means for treating a range of disorders involving problems with self-regulation including ADHD, anxiety, depression, and personality disorders. While the neurological impact of mindfulness practice is only beginning to be understood, Tang and Posner wrote that “mindfulness practice is indeed a powerful modulator of structural and functional brain plasticity”.