25th May 2018

The mind is like a muscle that needs exercise: What current research reveals about mindfulness.

New claims about the positive effects of mindfulness seem to appear almost daily. So it’s refreshing to encounter a book that seeks to cast a discerning eye over current research. ‘The Science of Meditation’ (by Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence fame, and Neuroscientist Richard Davidson) does just that. It provides a robust appraisal of the evidence base, and what exactly it shows. In particular it draws a distinction between the possible impact of doing a few weeks of mindfulness on say an 8 week course as compared to having a long established meditation practice. Some key findings are outlined below:

Mindfulness and the Amygdala
The brain’s amygdala is in effect our neural radar for threats. Undertaking a mindfulness course seems to dampen activity in this crucial area (see MRI scan research). This can help take us off the ‘hair trigger’ of vigilance. The great news is that this effect is observable as a baseline ‘trait’ effect; in other words, it is observable in brain imaging even when the person whose brain is being scanned isn’t meditating. What about the effect of longer term meditation? Well, here there is evidence that there is a strengthening of the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (the brain’s ‘executive’ decision-making centre). The enhancing of this connection enables us to more readily engage those rational areas of the brain in order to manage and recover from distress more effectively in daily life.

Mindfulness and our Attention
Our attention, and where we place it, is ever more relevant in today’s media rich, attention grabbing world. A brief course in mindfulness strengthens the brain’s ability to focus on one thing, and allows attention to be sustained in the face of distraction (see MRI scan research). This neurological evidence is corroborated by a well-regarded study into university students that indicates that a brief training in attention based mindfuless practices improves concentration, mind wandering and working memory (see study). The caveat is that whilst many of these gains can be seen immediately following a relatively short period of mindfulness training, a longer period of mediation is most likely needed for these changes to become embedded ‘traits’.

Lessening our pre-occupation with ourselves
It is often claimed that the practice of mindfulness allows us to see events around us in a lighter and more discerning way; we are less ‘in the thick of it’ and more able to take a step back from our thoughts. Studies involving brain scans back this up (see Cresswell, 2016). This research focuses on the functional coupling of two areas of the brain; the Default Mode Network (which, amongst other things is involved the thoughts we have about our past or future) and a particular area within our ‘executive’ brain – the left dorsolateral Pre Frontal Cortex. It turns out that following a relatively short period of meditation practice the coupling of these two areas allows us exercise more top-down executive control over our self-referencing mind chatter. Golemen and Davidson add that it is through the practice of longer-term meditation that the chatter itself lessens as the Default Mode Network quietens.

The rapid effect that compassion based mediation has upon empathy.
One of the clearest and most consistent findings of recent research outlined in the book is that compassion based meditation practices enhance empathetic concern for others; brain circuits that register the suffering of others are activated along with those that prepare us to act. The authors go so far as to suggest that the rapid neural changes that are consistently seen when undertaking this particular type of meditation suggest that the human brain has a disposition for goodness.

Throughout the book there is the clear and consistent message that meditation can and does affect the brain’s functioning and structure. Equally, there needs to be caveats to this broad brush statement. Firstly that there is evidence of short-term changes but only in specific areas as outlined in this article. Secondly that specific types
of meditation practice produce particular neurological changes. And finally that the longer the period of time over which a person practices, the more
fundamental any neurological change is likely to be. Put in its most simplistic terms the central message in the book is this: That the brain is very much like a muscle which improves with exercise….now then where did I put my dumbells?