The Science of Mindfulness Meditation

It’s hard to focus on the “now” when there is so much else going on in our lives. We think about our past mistakes while ruminating about our future, all while eyeing the laundry that has to be done and concocting the menu for the week in our mind. 

Mindfulness meditation can help with the hullabaloo and chaos of everyday life. Mindfulness meditation forces you to focus on the here and now, so that you can slow down those racing thoughts, let go of all of the negativity that does not matter right now, and calm both your mind and body. It is awareness and acceptance of what is going on right now

Sleep disturbances are incredibly prevalent among older adults and they often go untreated as there are limited treatment options. An experiment was done to test the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in promoting sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep disturbances. The subjects participated in a program called MAP’s for daily living, which is a weekly two hour, six session group based course in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness exercises included mindful sitting meditation, mindful eating, mindful walking and movement, appreciation meditation, and friendly or loving-kindness meditation. Participants engaged in a mean of ten to thirty minutes of mindfulness practice in each class along with a teacher-delivered didactic material and group discussion. Participants were also given a book on mindfulness accompanied by a disc on guided meditation. Mindfulness practice homework began with five minutes every day and then progressively advanced to twenty minutes daily by session six.

The control group participated in the SHE Program, which matched the MAP program for time, length, and group participation. The SHE Program is a course in sleep hygiene and education.  

After performing mindfulness meditation by themselves and learning about it from an instructor for six weeks, the experimenters found that there was a huge improvement in the sleep quality among the older adults. They also reported higher levels of mindfulness compared to the control group. In addition, the participants in the MAP group relayed that they improved in sleep-related daytime impairments that come from their sleep disturbances, such as depression and fatigue. The researchers concluded that mindfulness meditation seemed to have appeared to have a role in addressing the prevalent burden of sleep problems among older adults by fixing their moderate sleep disturbances and deficits in daytime functioning. 

Another experiment was done to see which parts of the brain are activated during meditation. The results indicated that meditation activates several neural structures that are involved in attention such as the frontal (retention of long-term memory) and parietal cortex (spatial information). Meditation also activates neural structures that are involved in arousal and autonomic control such as the pregenual anterior cingulate (plays a role in positive emotions), amygdala (regulates fear, anger, and pleasure), midbrain (responsible for vision, hearing, motor control, sleep and wakefulness, arousal, and temperature regulation), and hypothalamus (links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland). In addition, there was significant activation in the putamen (regulates movements at various stages and influences various types of learning), precentral and postcentral gyri (executes voluntary motor movements and integrates sensory information from different parts of the body) and the hippocampus (involved in memory retention) in many subjects. 

A further experiment was done to see if brief mindfulness meditation was beneficial, as previously studies had only been done on long-term mindfulness meditation. Sixty three students with the median age of twenty years old volunteered for the experiment and they had no prior meditation experience. The subjects went through mindfulness meditation training twenty minutes a day for four days. The experimenters used a form of mindfulness meditation known as Shamatha, which is also known as focused attention. Focused attention is the cognitive practice of sustaining attention on the changing sensations of the breath, and monitoring discursive events as they arise. Shamatha meditation is the foundation of Buddhist practice, and it is different from other meditations in that its primary focus is on calming the mind, while other forms of meditation focus on clearing the mind and insight. If there is a painful experience, then the meditation helps to disengage from the event without affective reaction, and redirecting attention back to the breathing. In the study, a control group listened to an audiobook version of JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit and were instructed to silence their cell phones and any electronics. A research assistant sat with the participants to make sure that the participants were attentive. 

The participants were also given The Profile of Mood States which is a sixty five item inventory that measures the current mood of the participants on a Likert scale. There were six subscales that measured tension, depression, confusion, fatigue, anger, and vigor. There were other tests given to measure depression, anxiety, and mindfulness of the participants. There were also cognitive tasks that were performed by the participants. The participants filled out these inventories and scales before they meditated or participated in the control group, and after. 

The results showed that people who participated in the mindfulness meditation reported higher levels of mindfulness on the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory compared to the people who were in the control group. There was also a reduction in total scores of negative mood from the mood questionnaire. Further, brief meditation training was effective at significantly reducing fatigue, while listening to the book did not. Similarly, the meditation training group had significantly reduced anxiety scores, while those listening to the book did not. In addition, brief meditation training was shown to be effective at improving performance in several cognitive tasks compared to the control group. 

The results concluded that incredibly brief mindfulness meditation training was effective in significantly increasing mindfulness scores, mood scores, and cognitive task scores that required sustained attention and executive processing efficiency. Those who meditated were able to maintain their focus and accurately retrieve information from working memory under certain conditions that require more rapid stimulus processing.

In an even more extreme study, researchers studied the use of mindfulness meditation on incarcerated individuals that had substance abuse problems. The researchers used Vipassana meditation, which is a Buddhist mindfulness based practice, to try to provide an alternative for individuals who did not wish to attend or had not succeeded with traditional addiction treatments. Vipassana meditation teaches mindfulness through objective, detached self observation without reaction. This absence of reaction allows for acceptance of thoughts and sensations as independent, impermanent events that are not direct reflections of the self. Vipassana meditation is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation, and it focuses on insight, a clear awareness of what is happening as it is happening. This is different from Shamatha meditation, which is primarily focused on calming the mind. 

The results concluded that there was a significant relationship between participation in the meditation course and post incarceration substance abuse across three different substances, of alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine. The participants also reported fewer alcohol-related negative consequences three months following the release from prison. Those who participated in the Vipassana course also reported significantly lower levels of psychiatric symptoms, more internal alcohol related locus of control, and higher levels of optimism. 

Mindfulness meditation does not only affect our psychological and mental processing, but it also helps our immune systems and bodies. A study was performed to test the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain and immune functions in a work environment with healthy employees. There were forty eight subjects that participated in the study and they were all employees of a biotechnology corporation in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Each participant underwent a test to measure brain electrical activity before the random assignment to each of the two groups, immediately after they were assigned, and four months after the training period ended. Before they underwent the tests, they filled out a questionnaire with the three most positive and three most negative experiences that they ever went through. EEG was recorded one minute before they filled out the questionnaire and three minutes after they filled out the questionnaire. 

The control group and the meditation group were given an influenza vaccine and blood was drawn three to five weeks after, and then eight to nine weeks after to examine antibodies in response to the vaccine using the hemagglutination inhibition assay (used to titrate the antibody response to viral infection). The meditation group was asked to provide daily reports of the frequency and number of minutes and techniques of formal meditation practice. 

Results showed that there was a significant reduction in self-reported anxiety in the group that did mindfulness meditation. In response to the influenza vaccine, the participants who meditated displayed a significantly greater rise in concentration of antibodies from the four to the eight week blood draw compared to the participants in the control group. 

These incredible results support the idea that a short training program in mindfulness meditation has incredible results on brain and immune function. In fact, one study also found that mindfulness has an effect on the rate of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis. 

Mindfulness meditation can be extremely beneficial, but it may be hard to know where to start. It could be right when you wake up, right before you go to bed, or whenever you are feeling particularly stressed and need to focus on the here and now. Find a comfortable place to sit where there is minimal distraction. Sit in a chair or on the floor with your head, neck, and back straight but not stiff. It might also be beneficial to wear comfortable and loose clothing so you are not distracted by anything tight and uncomfortable. 

In addition, some may find it helpful to have a timer with a soft, gentle alarm that can help you focus on your meditation and forget about time for those few minutes. Also, some people lose track of time when they meditate and this will ensure that you don’t mediate for longer than you want. Be sure to give yourself some time after you finish the meditation to become aware of your surroundings and to get up gradually. 

While you meditate, become aware of your breathing and how each and every breath is different. If you feel your mind wandering, let your mind go wherever it wants and return to the breathing without judgement. A big part of mindfulness meditation is returning to the breathing and refocusing on the present. 

Mindfulness meditation has a myriad of benefits, both psychological and physical. Mindfulness meditation can enhance your cognitive abilities, reduce symptoms of depression, boost activity in your immune system, treat binge eating, and prevent cellular aging among many other benefits. It is never too late to start focusing on the present to help our bodies and minds. 

 








References: 

Black DS, O’Reilly GA, Olmstead R, Breen EC, Irwin MR. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494–501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081

Lazar, Sara W., et al. "Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation." Neuroreport 11.7 (2000): 1581-1585.

Zeidan, Fadel, et al. "Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training." Consciousness and cognition 19.2 (2010): 597-605.

Bowen, Sarah, et al. "Mindfulness meditation and substance use in an incarcerated population." Psychology of addictive behaviors 20.3 (2006): 343.

Davidson, Richard J., et al. "Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation." Psychosomatic medicine 65.4 (2003): 564-570.

Kabat-Zinn J, Wheeler E, Light T, Skillings A, Scharf M, Cropley TG, Hosmer D, Bernhard J. Influence of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing phototherapy (UVB) and photochemotherapy (PUVA). Psychom Med 1998;60:625– 632.


By Elisheva Hoffman

Just Five Minutes a Day
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