Scientific interest in mindfulness has been rapidly increasing since the late 1990s. Organizations like Google and the U.S. Army are now using mindfulness training to enhance task functioning and build other positive outcomes (Jha et al., 2015; Tan, 2012). For example, it has been argued that being mindful allows one to respond to situations with balance rather than reacting emotionally in an impulsive fashion. It seems that mindfulness helps to reduce our negative emotional reactions to stressful situations. It may do this by increasing our exposure to the stimuli that provoke these reactions while helping us to maintain an open and more accepting stance. In this way the brain may process stressful information in a more regulated, less emotional, and adaptive way which seems to contribute to learning that builds emotional resilience and regulation when encountering future stressful events. Consistent with this view, research has shown that a mindfulness stance when confronting distressing images reduces subsequent negative emotion when re-exposed to such images (Uusberg et al., 2016).
Another important area of research shows that while a wandering mind (often referred to as autopilot) is a natural state of the mind that can assist with problem solving and planning, it can also contribute to worsening negative moods if left unchecked for too long (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2002). In contrast, people that frequently adopt a more present focused attention, as well as an open and accepting attitude towards experience tend to experience more positive moods (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Following this line of reasoning, research shows that mindfulness is a skill that we all possess to a greater or lesser degree, and that mindfulness can be improved with training. To the present time, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR: Kabat-Zinn, 1990) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT: Segal et al., 2012) are two of the most prominent mindfulness training interventions that have been extensively scientifically evaluated in controlled trials. Meta-analyses of results across a number of studies have shown that these programs lead to benefits in terms of reducing negative mood and preventing depression (Khoury et al., 2013) and increasing mindfulness, self-compassion and positive mood (van der Velden et al., 2015).
Link to youtube Oxford lecture by Professor Mark Williams on how mindfulness can help prevent depressive moods.
Mindfulness Mechanisms of Action
While there have been numerous explanations of how mindfulness practices may be helpful, the model developed by Malinowski (2013) shown below may be a useful starting point in terms of understanding some of the neuro-cognitive processes by which mindfulness may contribute to various physical and psychological benefits. In brief, Malinowski argues that mindfulness practices afford improvements in selective attention and control, which leads to better allocation of mental resources and processing, and thus improved cognitive flexibility and emotion regulation. Acting together these processes lead to a less judgemental and more accepting stance towards experience, and over time this influences behaviour and ultimately better health outcomes. Holzel et al. (2011) have come to a similar position by proposing that that mindfulness works through attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation (reappraisal, exposure, extinction and re-consolidation) and changes in perspectives of the self. From statistical analysis of treatment trials, Gu et al. (2015) concluded that there is consistent evidence that reductions in cognitive and emotional reactivity mediates positive health outcomes from participation in mindfulness-based interventions like MBSR and MBCT. In addition there is moderate and consistent evidence for improvements in mindfulness, reduction in rumination and worry, and preliminary but insufﬁcient evidence for increases in self-compassion and psychological ﬂexibility as mechanisms that lead to better outcomes after attending mindfulness training programs.
Diagram from Malinowski, P. (2013). Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7, 8.
Scientific studies have also investigated the impact of meditation and mindfulness on particular parts of the brain, with research ongoing. Consistent with some of the previous research outlined, the findings from these studies suggest that mindfulness meditation is implicated in causing neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness (Tang, Holzel & Posner, 2015). These authors suggest that these processes facilitate better self-regulation and thus improved health and behavioural outcomes. The particular parts of the brain implicated in this process are located in the pre-frontal cortex (e.g., dorsal, ventro-medial, and anterior cingulate cortex), insula, amygdala and hippocampus. For full review article click here.
Link to the American Mindfulness Research Association for a database on all the latest research articles.
References and Further Reading
Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., . . . Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 48-73.
Gu, J., Strauss, C., Bond, R., & Cavanagh, K. (2015). How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 37:1-12.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.
Keune, P. M., Bostanov, V., Hautzinger, M., & Kotchoubey, B. (2013). Approaching dysphoric mood: State-effects of mindfulness meditation on frontal brain asymmetry. Biological Psychology, 93(1),105-13.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005
Malinowski, P. (2013). Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7, 8.
Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. New York: The Guilford Press.
Smallwood, J., & O’Connor, R. C. (2011). Imprisoned by the past: unhappy moods lead to a retrospective bias to mind wandering. Cognition & Emotion, 25(8), 1481-1490.
Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.
Uusberg, H., Uusberg, A., Talpsep, T., & Paaver, M. (2016). Mechanisms of mindfulness: The dynamics of affective adaptation during open monitoring. Biological Psychology.
Vago, D. R., & Silbersweig, S. A. (2012). Self-Awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 296.
van der Velden, A. M., Kuyken, W., Wattar, U., Crane, C., Pallesen, K. J., Dahlgaard, J., … & Piet, J. (2015). A systematic review of mechanisms of change in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in the treatment of recurrent major depressive disorder. Clinical Psychology Review, 37, 26-39. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2015.02.001
Zeidan, F., Grant, J. A., Brown, C. A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters, 520(2), 165-173.