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Mindfulness and the brain

It's popularly associated with peacefulness, calm, and stress reduction. But there's clear evidence that meditation also improves memory, increases awareness, empathy and compassion. These changes are revealed on brain scans.

The neural changes associated with mindfulness

It’s popularly associated with peacefulness, calm, and stress reduction. But there’s clear evidence that meditation also improves memory, increases awareness, empathy and compassion. These changes are seen on brain scans, which reveal greater density in the areas of the brain associated with these aspects. The research was carried out on people recruited by the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, who had followed an eight-week programme, and who were compared with a control group.

The programme involved learning to use mindfulness exercises, which practised applying non-judgmental, accepting awareness to thoughts, sensations and feelings. This was combined with a series of audiotapes giving guided instruction in meditation practice. MRI scans were given to participants and controls before and after the programme, and the differences were found after analysis.

Even short training reduces pain

Another set of tests run by a different team of researchers, this time in the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, a teaching hospital in North Carolina, involved a short training in mindfulness meditation of just four 20-minute sessions.

Meditation can improve memory and awareness

People in the study were subjected to a pain-inducing heat device placed on the skin for a few minutes Without the training, pain levels were recorded as normal, and brain scans reflected this. With the training, and with the mindfulness meditation put into practice during the experiment, people reported less pain and the scans showed much less activity in the pain-processing areas of the brain.

In fact, results showed a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness, which compares favourably to morphine and other pain-relieving drugs. Placebo effect was controlled for in an earlier study, which gave participants fake training — and which found no reduction in pain effect.

Meditation immediately improves performance

And in yet more studies, this time at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, US, 10 volunteers were tested in a ‘psychomotor vigilance task’, which involves pressing a button when an image appears on a screen. The volunteers took part before and after 40-minute separate periods of sleep, meditation, reading and light conversation.

The 40-minute nap was known to improve performance (after an hour or so to recover from grogginess). Meditation was the only thing that resulted in an immediately better performance, even though none of the volunteers was an experienced meditator.

The House Partnership, 20th November 2015


An overview of mindfulness based therapies

Mindfulness, though it draws influence from ancient Buddhist tradition, is fast becoming an essential part of a range of non-religious psychological therapies and helping people with a wide variety of physical and emotional concerns.

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Professor Mark Williams, co-developer of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and research fellow at Oxford University, discusses the science behind why mindfulness works, in calming stress and preventing depression from recurring.

Mindfulness, brain and immune function

New psychology research has used brain scans, EEG, and measured antibody production, to reveal the biological processes that underlie the positive changes that people experience after practicing mindfulness meditation as part of psychological therapy.

Mindfulness ~ Kathy's story

In this short film from the Mental Health Foundation, Kathy Andrews talks about how she came to practise mindfulness with Professor Mark Williams. This practice has given her invaluable techniques to help overcome her depression.