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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

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