Physiology of Mindfulness
How does mindfulness impact our health?
I first learned about meditation from a friend in high school. I saw him sitting eyes closed on a pillow doing not a single thing, and figured him to be a silly hippie. What a waste of precious time! Now that I’ve joined a profession of “hippie doctors” and run a drugless practice, I’ll admit I misjudged the situation.
It won’t take much googling to find an article that tells you mindfulness or meditation can help whatever ailment you’ve got. I’ve got two points to make up front.
Mindfulness really can help most people, but it’s not for everyone. Some people have very good reasons, typically traumatic ones, to avoid getting up close and personal with their minds. Trust your instincts about this, and get help from a pro if you’re uncertain about the practice.
In this article, mindfulness means a non-judgemental awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Meditation is one mode to practice mindfulness, but you can also do yoga, pray, walk a labyrinth, knit a scarf. You can develop mindfulness in lots of ways.
What’s the point of mindfulness?
Depends who you ask. In our modern lives, we typically look to mindfulness for stress reduction or mental clarity, but the original intent was much different. Mindfulness has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, and the point was to understand the true nature of reality and put an end to all suffering. A different angle, safe to say. So when we make claims about the health benefits of mindfulness, let’s keep in mind that these are all side effects as far as the Buddha was concerned. Don’t mind me, speaking for the Buddha!
Let’s take for example rumination, one of my favorite pastimes. When ruminating, you cannot stop thinking about how that jerk did you wrong, the thoughts and feelings can absolutely consume you. By practicing mindfulness, you build the habit of being a non-judgemental witness to your thoughts. You watch them come and go, and eventually you loosen your grip on them. From a Buddhist perspective, you are practicing living the reality that you are not your thoughts, an essential step on your way to enlightenment. For most of us, we’re in it for the the anxiety break we get when we finally let that person out of our heads.
So what happens when we adopt a state of mindfulness? To tackle this, I’ll borrow Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman’s distinction of altered states vs altered traits. Altered states are temporary, and occur during your mindfulness practice. Altered traits endure, and can be measured outside of your practice.
I remember the peace of mind I felt during my first Vipassana meditation course last summer. It took nearly 100 hours of meditation, but by the end my mind was spacious and quiet. It was wonderful. And ya know what I honestly I haven’t felt that way since I left the center! Perfect example of an altered state. The “flow state” is a similar case, where one loses oneself in their peak performance of a rewarding activity. But the chaos of the real world beckons, and these states become a fond memory.
The data on physiologic impacts of mindfulness is vast and growing rapidly. Below is just my highlight reel. These are the well-evidenced traits that have been measured in mindfulness practitioners outside of the bounds of the actual meditation, asana, prayer, whatever. This is the stuff that lasts. All of this is in addition to the now widely proven traits associated with the relaxation response, such as decreased blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate (1).
It was demonstrated back in 2010 that regardless of the activity we’re engaged in, we are happier if we are mentally present for it. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. (2) Since then we’ve solidified some of the science behind that finding. We’ve got two opposing networks in our brains – the default mode network (our wandering daydreamy state) and the task-positive network (our focused attentive state). They are mutually exclusive by nature. Your brain simply can’t wander and focus at the same time. Many studies now show that elements of the default mode network are down-regulated in experienced meditators, meaning their wandering mind has less influence. (3)
Alpha waves are the brain waves associated a state of attention and focus, the ability to not get distracted instantly by the shiny thing. We can see that these are enhanced by mindfulness practices. (4) There’s also a pretty cool concept called “attentional blink”. Imagine the game “Whack-A-Mole”, where the mole is repeatedly and randomly popping up in the periphery of our attention. Our brains fatigue after so many whacks, and the “blink” between our moments of attention gets longer. Advanced meditators demonstrate a shortened attentional blink. (5) Monks could probably kick your ass at whack-a-mole.
3. Pain reduction
There are two main parts of the pain experience; the sensory part (frank pain) and the emotional part (suffering). It’s looking like both can be lessened with a mindfulness practice. The emotional aspect is lessened in part because of the down-regulation of the default mode network mentioned above. One key element of this network is the amygdala, the node of the brain that heightens our emotions. If our negative emotions surrounding the pain experience are dampened, we suffer less. Another exciting new avenue of research is looking at the freaking genomic changes associated with mindfulness, and it is promising. Genes that propagate the inflammatory pathways that cause frank pain in conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease have been shown to be down-regulated with mindfulness. (6) WOW, might mindfulness be anti-inflammatory?
4. Stress management
The state of relaxation associated with mindfulness is essentially the opposite of our strung-out “fight-or-flight” response. This state is perfectly suited for life-threatening situations, but we far too commonly adopt it in response to daily stressors like impending deadlines or giant to-do lists. Not helpful. In studies we typically look at cortisol, the primary hormone associated with the stress response, to assess if a person is stressed out or not. When subjected to awful experiments of psychosocial stress, experienced mindfulness practitioners demonstrate lower cortisol levels than control groups again and again. (7)
5. Brain age
To top it all off, it’s becoming more clear that mindfulness slows brain aging. (8) Multiple studies have shown that the hippocampus and pertinent sections of the cortex have been visualized by MRI to be relatively larger in long-term meditators as compared to controls. These are two regions that we know to shrink in Alzheimers Disease.
Dang, sounds like it’s time to get mindful. Which mindfulness practice is most effective? Much like diet and physical exercise, the answer is the one that you can stick with. There are so many kinds of practices, and all have very similar benefits. My recommendation is to experiment with different kinds of yoga and meditation. Find one that you like, and do that one. If you stop liking it, do a different one. These altered traits are largely dose-dependent, meaning the more you do it, the more benefit you get.
Thanks for nerding out with me! Leave a comment with your questions, comments, or recommendations for other readers!