Mindfulness meditation: The science
In recent decades, there has been a huge amount of research pointing to the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation training for both individuals and organisations to increase health and wellbeing, help manage stress and enhance interpersonal skills, leadership and performance.
Much of this research comes from the US or Europe and Openground for Organisations (OGO) is interested in developing an empirical body of Australian based research as to the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions, as well as contributing to the overall research base for mindfulness globally.
Here is a snapshot of some of the research pointing to the effectiveness of mindfulness training for individuals and organisations.
There has been great excitement in recent years about the brain's ability to transform itself through activity - that is though how we use our minds. Mindfulness training can be helpful to train our minds (and therefore brains) in a useful direction. Some examples:
- In 2015 a team of scientists from University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology pooled data from more than 20 brain mapping studies which showed that after 8 weeks of daily practice mindfulness practitioners have increased neuronal activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and have an increased capacity to resist distractions, inhibit impulsivity, and make correct answers more than non-meditators. They also learn better from past experience to support optimal decision making and can regulate their emotions better. 1
- Brain mapping studies showed that 8 weeks of daily mindfulness practice increases grey matter concentration in brain areas involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. 2
- In 2010, scientists at Stanford carried out neuro-imaging assessments of participants in an 8 week mindfulness program which showed reduced reactivity of the amygdala and increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, thereby reducing stress. 3
Stress can have a dramatic effect on how our bodies function and how we experience our lives. It distracts us from getting on with enjoying life. It gets in the way of our attempts to sort out the problems causing it. And if we let it get the better of us, it can even make us physically ill. So dealing with our stress is important. For decades science has been confirming that stress can contribute to many of the diseases and conditions we suffer from in our society. Everything from heart disease, cancer, allergies, digestive and immune problems, ulcers and diabetes to anxiety and depression and other psychological conditions have all been linked to the effects of stress.
One of the first impacts of practising mindfulness can be the capacity to move out of an aroused, activated, stressed state into a calmer, reflective, regulated state. This relaxed state—called the parasympathetic state—shows in responses such as slowing down of the heartbeat, increase of expiration, relaxation of muscles, increased digestive activity and recuperation and rest.
When we cultivate our innate capacity to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally we cultivate self awareness (of our body sensations, thoughts and emotions) so that we can recognise the markers of stress early, and to respond with effective strategies sooner. Research indicates that practising these skills reduces stress reactivity, increases focus and concentration and so helps with managing major life changes and transitions. It gives us more mental clarity and perspective on our problems so we can make better choices. Some research snapshots:
- Participants in a 6 week mindfulness training program carried out in the workplace reported reduced workplace stress and increased mindfulness compared to a control group. 4
- In another study in 2012, participants in a workplace mindfulness program showed significantly greater improvements on perceived stress, sleep quality, and the heart rhythm coherence ratio of heart rate variability compared with the control group. 5
- A further study in 2013 showed that those participating in an 8 week Mindfulness program had decreased blood pressure reactivity to stress than those in a control group. 6
Physical health and well-being
Stress can lead to physical health problems but also, being ill – especially chronically – can be very stressful. We can feel out of control of our life and become anxious and depressed about our suffering and its impact on relationships, finances and work.
People often come to mindfulness training with a range of health issues including IBS, chronic pain, gastritis, hepatitis C, non-Hodgkin’s lymphona, migraine, immune problems, chronic sinus, inflammation, asthma, chronic pain, thyroid disorders and cancer.
- It has been shown to be effective in both helping people manage the symptoms of their illness immediately, and also to live more fully despite the illness – reducing emotional distress and increasing quality of life and well-being. In the program, you are invited to systematically develop internal resources to cope with the demands of life with an illness. 7 8 9
- One very interesting study has just found that mindfulness meditation training, compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker, in high-stress, unemployed community adults. 10 It is showing that the biological health-related benefits occur because mindfulness meditation training fundamentally alters brain network functional connectivity patterns and the brain changes statistically explain the improvements in inflammation. This explains a possible mechanism of why mindfulness interventions can be impactful across a range of different illnesses.
Mental health and well-being
Numerous scientific studies have found meditation to be effective for treating anxiety and depression.
One group of US researchers looked at how mindfulness had helped with anxiety and depression management across various types of people: from those suffering with cancer, to those with social anxiety disorders and eating issues. They examined 39 scientific studies, totalling 1,140 participants and discovered that the anxiety and depression-reducing benefits from mindfulness might be enjoyed across such a wide range of conditions because when you learn mindfulness, you learn how to work with difficulties and stress in general. 11,12
Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, taught mindfulness to a group of people with clinical levels of anxiety and found that 90% experienced significant reductions in anxiety - and depression too. 13
Those of us who are suffering with anxiety often show a greater activity in the part of our brain called the amygdala – the threat detector. The practice of MBSR over a period of eight weeks has been shown to reduce the size and activity in this region of the brain, effectively turning down emotional reactivity. 14 Other researchers, from Harvard University, have found that mindfulness can actually physically reduce the number of neurones in this fear-triggering part of our brains. 15
Working under pressure
Being able to perform under pressure is an important capacity for most humans who are pursuing a full life - whether it is a high powered job, a difficult child or a life transition involving new added demands. It seems that mindfulness can actually help us become more skilled at staying present, alert and calm under pressure.
- A study carried out in the US Marine Corps found that those Marines who trained in mindfulness experienced improved mood and working memory. Under pressure, they were more capable of complex thought and problem solving and they had better control of their emotions. Mindfulness training reduces the functional impairments associated with high-stress challenges that demand high levels of cognitive control, self-awareness, situational awareness and emotional regulation. 16
Focus and cognitive performance
Whatever we are pursuing in our lives - our performance and ability to learn new things is dependent on our ability to focus. But it goes beyond this. Focus can have far reaching consequences in many areas of our lives. Being able to focus and resist distraction is also linked to our ability to control our impulses, emotions and achieve long-term goals.
- Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can improve our ability to sustain attention. 17
- A study of undergraduate students at the University of California showed that 2 weeks of daily mIndfulness training decreases mind wandering and improves cognitive performance. 18
- An experiment involving 3 groups of knowledge workers found that those who underwent an 8-week training course in mindfulness-based meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance, as compared with the other two groups. Not only were they able to reduce multi-tasking but they also showed improved memory for details of work that had been performed. 19
- Mindfulness enhances the speed with which attention can be allocated and relocated, thus increasing the depth of information processing. 20
Self-regulation is the ability to change states flexibly - which is an essential capacity in all of our roles - as friends, partners, workers and parents. We probably all know that experience of being hijacked by anger, or finding ourselves stuck in a low mood. Feelings and thoughts are signals that are so beneficial in letting us know our responses to what is going on in our lives. But sometimes we find ourselves so caught up we are unable to reflect on what we are experiencing emotionally and what we are thinking and seem to get stuck and recreate unhelpful states long after their productive use-by date. Mindfulness helps us to become aware of our states and teaches us how to see, feel and let go of unhelpful states of mind and body.
- Mindfulness training strengthens the capacity to monitor thoughts and behaviours and has been shown to improve emotional regulation within a work context, thereby resulting in decreased emotional exhaustion and increased job satisfaction. 21
Creativity and innovative problem-solving
Living a full life is a creative act in itself, and creative thinking has the power to help you open doors and take advantage of all your opportunities. When you’re faced with problems - whether that’s with a relationship, a broken appliance or an issue in your work - a touch of creativity can often help you find the solution. So it’s good to know that scientists have found evidence that meditation helps people to be more innovative.
- In 2012, a research project in the Netherlands found open-monitoring mindfulness practices which involve observing moment to moment experience without judging, promotes divergent thinking which allows many new ideas to be generated. 22
- In an experiment in 2012, both a control group and a group of mindfulness practitioners were given a series of tasks of different complexity. The mindfulness practitioners were found to be less rigid in their thinking, ruminated less and had more cognitive flexibility, figuring out more quickly that certain problems could be solved using fewer and easier steps than earlier ones. The authors concluded that mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be “blinded” by experience and helps people look at each task with a freshness of attention. 23
- Mindfulness practice helps interrupt habitual patterns of ineffective responses and increases the capacity for reflection, planning and problem solving. 24
Emotional intelligence is the capacity of individuals to recognise their own, and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.
- Mindfulness training has also been shown to raise one’s level of emotional intelligence and improve relationships. Those completing a course of mindfulness training showed significant improvements with respect to emotional intelligence, perceived stress and mental health compared to others. 25
Mindfulness training is being shown to contribute to leadership capacity by increasing emotional regulation, tolerating uncertainty increasing clarity and focus.
- A research project at a Singaporean University in 2014 examined the influence of leader trait mindfulness on employees and found it was positively associated with both employee performance and employee wellbeing. 26
orkplace engagement is a critical issue for many leaders in terms of being able to motivate and retain staff and to make work a place of flourishing rather than of endurance.
- In 2013 Leroy and his colleagues collected survey data from six eight week inhouse mindfulness programs which found that mindfulness practices lead to an increase in authentic functioning which was positively related to employees’ engagement at work. 27
Compassion is a skill that anyone can learn and has been taken up across the world as a way to cultivate a more easeful and generous relationship with ourselves and others.
- Mindfulness practice was shown to cultivate self compassion which in turn reduced negative thinking and also improved individual motivation to make necessary changes in one’s life. 28
- Further studies show that the practice of mindfulness increases positive moods and cultivates compassion for self and others. 29, 30
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