What is Mindfulness? (And How it Changes Your Brain)
Over the past decade, mindfulness meditation has stormed into mainstream consciousness, touted as a one-way ticket to mental and physical optimization.
If you’re a skeptical onlooker, suspicious that the benefits are overhyped, you’re probably asking: are these claims backed by science? Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate; there is a vast literature we can look to for answers.
Before diving into the research, let’s define our terms.
What is mindfulness?
John Kabat-Zinn describes it as:
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
While this type of meditation has roots in Buddhism, it is readily exportable to a secular context, and can be extracted from its metaphysical framework and practiced as an independent technique.
What does a mindfulness session look like?
I’ll describe my own practice: I begin by sitting in a chair, and noticing the sensations associated with my breath.
Next, I widen my attention to encompass bodily sensations, sounds, and other stimuli.
Ultimately my attention broadens to such a degree that I am receptive to the full flow of experience in each moment.
Nothing falls outside of the purview of attention. I sometimes focus on tingling in my feet, or the rising and falling of my abdomen, or thoughts coming and going like clouds in a windy sky.
Sometimes, I attend to obscure elements of experience, such as my sense that the center of my consciousness is located inside my head, behind my eyes. Nothing that appears in consciousness need be excluded from this practice.
Social, cognitive, and neuropsychology literature have all contributed to a multimodal account of the mechanisms explaining the positive effects of this practice.
Mindfulness has been shown to enhance emotional and psychological well-being (even in depressed and anxious individuals), empathy, metacognitive awareness, working memory, visuospatial processing, and even executive functioning.
How does one simple practice trigger such diverse changes?
A key mediator of these benefits is a construct called metacognitive awareness, the ability to view your thoughts or emotions in third person, rather than identifying with them.
The capacity to watch your thoughts with curiosity, rather than judgement, may grant you the presence of mind to short-circuit harmful thought-loops and behavior-patterns.
Not only does mindfulness alter cognitive abilities; it even changes the structure of the brain.
When researchers scanned the brains of meditators using functional MRI technology, they found increased gray matter in the hippocampus (an area associated with learning and memory), the posterior cingulate cortex (involved in emotional processing), and the cerebellum (involved in motor fine tuning and attentional regulation).
Increased gray matter – put simply – means increased brain power.
If the benefits of mindfulness could be sold in a pill, it would be a billion-dollar drug.
In an increasingly distracting world, there has never been a better time to integrate this practice into your life.
After all, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “the present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.”
Note from the editors: Mindfulness is often practiced through meditation. Learn how to meditate properly here.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Carmody, J., & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of behavioral medicine, 31(1), 23-33.
Winning, A. P., & Boag, S. (2015). Does brief mindfulness training increase empathy? The role of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 492-498.
Hargus, E., Crane, C., Barnhofer, T. & Williams, J. M. G. (2010). Effects of mindfulness on meta-awareness and specificity of describing prodromal symptoms in suicidal depression. Emotion, 10(1), 34.