Mindfulness can have a huge impact on our brains and how they work. Mindfulness can cause chemical changes within the brain which can alter what emotions we feel. Mindfulness can also change the way our parts of the brain interact with each other.
MRI scans have found the practice of mindfulness to cause some areas of the brain to shrink or grow:
- The grey matter of the amygdala (managing stress) has become smaller. This would indicate decreased activity.
- The grey matter of the prefrontal cortex (associated with planning, problem-solving and ability to regulate emotions) has become thicker. This would indicate an increase in activity to this area.
- An increase in the size of the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory). This would indicate increased activity.
The science takes it's knowledge further than the brain, looking at impacts of mindfulness on both mind and body and how these two entities communicate and work together:
One of the ways our mind and body can communicate is through our experience of pain. Mindfulness has been found to change how we experience pain:
There is a link between the level of pain we experience and our memories of pain. Each experience of pain is stored as a memory. Every time we feel a similar pain, our memory of this previous pain experience comes back to us and this can cause our current pain to feel worse.
A study on the subject of pain and mindfulness found that those who practiced mindfulness regularly reported feeling less pain than those who didn't. Contrary to other research, for these individuals the hippocampus didn't shrink, but was instead less active. The researchers came to the conclusion that mindfulness practice reduced connectivity to the hippocampus. Therefore, the subjects were not drawing on previous memories of pain, meaning they experienced less pain.
The contrary evidence found when looking at the brain's responses to mindfulness just proves how complicated the brain can be.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
In the 1980s, a UCLA neuropsychiatrist called Jeffrey Schwartz conducted research looking at the impact of mindfulness on patients with OCD. His hypothesis was that these patients would be able to form awareness, through mindfulness, that their obsessions were caused by malfunctions in their brain.
"It seemed worth investigating whether learning to observe your sensations and thoughts with the calm clarity of an external witness could strengthen the capacity to resist the insistent thoughts of OCD. I felt that if I could get patients to experience the OCD symptoms without reacting emotionally to the discomfort it caused, realising instead that even the most visceral OCD urge is actually no more than the manifestation of a brain wiring defect that has no reality in itself, it might be tremendously therapeutic."
Through mindfulness practice, Schwartz trained his patients to observe their thoughts for what they were. The majority of his patients reported positive results after just one week. PET scans were performed on the patients before and after 10 weeks of mindfulness-based therapy. The final PET scans for most showed physical changes to the brain.
"Therapy had altered the metabolism of the OCD circuit. This was the first study to show that cognitive behavioural therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit."
Schwartz came to the following final conclusion:
"Mental action can alter the brain chemistry of an OCD patient. The mind can change the brain."
Find the study here:
Researcher John Teasdale at Cambridge University hypothesised that patients with depression would experience fewer relapses if they were able to view their depressive thoughts "simply as events in their mind." The idea being that patients would learn how to become more aware of their thoughts and observe them as just that, rather than believing them to be truths. This would prevent the spiral into depression, and allow more control over responses to the thoughts.
The patients were followed for a year after their completion of 8 weeks of mindfulness treatment. Regular practice left 34% free from relapse. However, after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, 66% were relapse free. That's a 44% reduction in risk for those who received more structured, treatment-based mindfulness compared to those engaging in regular practice.
Find the study here: