In our ever-busy and ever-stressful world, most of us have heard of mindfulness as a way to achieve a state of calm and peace even when chaos is all around us. But does it really work?
The latest issue of Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience is a special edition focused on mindfulness neuroscience. Here is a round-up of what researchers are learning about mindfulness and its effects on the brain. Rather than focus on one article (my usual approach), I summarize several articles below.
Psychological and neural mechanisms of trait mindfulness in reducing depression vulnerability (Paul, Stanton, Greeson, Smoski, & Wang). This study looked at how mindfulness-based interventions reduce the risk for depression. The results suggested that mindfulness encourages non-reactivity to inner experiences, which acts as a protective factor against depression. More specifically, mindfulness buffers against the brain's tendency to ruminate, exhibit negative bias, or automatically react in an emotional way.
MBSR vs. aerobic exercise in social anxiety: fMRI of emotion regulation of negative self-beliefs (Goldin, Ziv, Jazaieri, Hahn, & Gross). Here, the researchers were interested in how mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) compared to aerobic exercise in the treatment of social anxiety disorder. Interestingly, they found that MBSR was more effective than aerobic exercise in reducing anxiety symptoms by decreasing negative emotions and increasing the brain's ability to regulate attention.
Mindful attention reduces neural and self-reported cue-induced craving in smokers (Westbrook, Creswell, Tabibnia, Julson, Kober, & Tindle). This study investigated how mindfulness-based interventions help people stop smoking. The researchers found that mindfulness exercises increased smokers' attention to the present moment. This seemed to "unwire" the craving circuitry that was usually activated when presented with smoking cues.
Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring (Teper & Inzlicht). A great deal of mindfulness research focuses on emotional factors, but mindfulness is thought to possibly improve cognitive performance as well. This study sought to explore the relationship between emotion and performance in light of mindfulness training. Not only did the researchers find that mindfulness practice was linked to improved performance and increased "performance monitoring" by the brain; they also found that increased emotional acceptance as a result of mindfulness training tended to drive the performance improvements.
These are just a few of the many encouraging studies published in the special issue. If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness practice, check out mindful.org - a leading site on mindfulness that offers an abundance of instructional articles and support.
Oxford Journals (2013). Special issue on mindfulness neuroscience. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1).