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Mindfulness: The Science Behind the Practice

The practice of mindfulness is everywhere. What is mindfulness? Can it really improve your mental state? What does the research have to say about it?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
September 4, 2018
Episode #300
image of an active brain due to mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness is everywhere. Business leaders, professional athletes, mental health professionals, and, of course, your neighbor down the street are all discussing how being mindful can improve our mental state and general well-being. Mindfulness is used as an approach for treating pain, depression, anxiety, OCD, addiction, chronic diseases, and HIV treatment side effects, as well as an aid in weight loss and in being more productive. So what is mindfulness? And what does the research have to say about its ability to better our lives?

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can have different definitions depending on whom you ask but however one defines mindfulness, the different approaches to the practice all fall under the idea of paying attention on purpose. This can mean noticing the things we take for granted from the feel of our shoes against our feet to the ways we interact with others. More clinically, mindfulness is defined as the self-regulation of attention with an attitude toward openness.

The meditation and emphasis on being fully aware of your surroundings often associated with the practice of mindfulness have similarities to traditional Buddhist practices, but today’s reincarnation of mindfulness is entirely secular. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs (known as MBSRs) typically focus on internal self reflection and the reduction of distractions as you focus your thoughts on the present.

The Science of Mindfulness

What are the evidence-backed benefits of participating in a mindfulness program?

  1. Memory Improvement
  2. Stress Reduction
  3. Healthier Diet
  4. Sleep Improvement

Let's explore each a little further. 

1. A mindfulness practice can help improve memory.

Mindful meditation has been shown to change the physical structure of our brains. For example, it prevents the thinning of the frontal cortex that generally happens as we get older and causes us to forget stuff. That study, led by Dr. Sara Lazar of Harvard Medical School, found that participating in an 8-week-long Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (or MBSR program for short) led to changes in the concentration of gray matter in the areas of the brain used for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective taking.

In another study of 48 undergraduate students, the majority of whom were female, researchers found that those who took a 2-week-long mindfulness class performed better on the reading comprehension portion of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test used for graduate school admissions by 16 percentile points. The class taught students to focus on physical posture and methods for focusing their attention on a task. The class also required daily meditation outside of the classroom. The authors of the study credited the improvement in scores to an increased ability to reduce distracting thoughts and an improved working memory due to the mindfulness practice.

2. Practicing mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety.

One of the main goals of mindfulness is to reduce distractions which can be one of the main pathways for worry to take over our thoughts. So it is no surprise that in a review of 64 studies in the literature (although with only 20 being considered of acceptable quality for full analysis), MBSR programs were found to help a broad range of people in coping with clinical and nonclinical problems like anxiety and stress.

Among those studies, nursing students in Korea saw reduced anxiety levels after participating in an 8-week mindfulness program. Initial evidence suggests that mindfulness programs may also help reduce the specific stress of adjusting to a cancer diagnosis.

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