The Science of Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness has evolved over centuries.  Although the early practicers of mindfulness may not have understood what it was doing to help them in a myriad of ways, they kept practicing.  It is a good thing they stuck with it, too, because modern science is now confirming what they knew: it works in a lot of great ways.  As science has evolved, so has the study of mindfulness and the science behind it is fascinating.

It is important to note that mindfulness practices come in many different forms.  For the purposes of this article, mindfulness is meant to represent any form it takes.  Here we will explore what mindfulness actually does to your brain and body from a scientific standpoint to illustrate its effectiveness.

One way mindfulness helps us is by shrinking the amygdala.  This portion of the brain controls the flight or fight response, which comes in handy in emergencies such as a fire, severe injury, or physical threat.  In these situations, our brains do many things to help prepare us to handle the situation.  These include moving blood from our digestive track to our muscles, sharpening our eyesight, releasing certain chemicals in the body, improving awareness, and more.  In essence, our bodies are literally preparing us to run from danger or fight it.  This is how our brains are hard wired and that is where mindfulness comes in.

MRI scans of the brain show a reduction of the amygdala after just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. This takes our more primal responses to stress that occur in flight or fight situations and replaces them with more thoughtful ones.  The interaction between the parts of the brain that make this happen with mindfulness meditation is confusing, but the bottom line is that more hours practicing mindfulness is correlated with the scale of changes it causes.

In addition to helping change our thought process to more thoughtful ones, mindfulness helps reduce pain.  This happens because the practice alters connectivity between two parts of the brain that normally communicate to each other about pain.  This means that when practicing mindfulness, the person is actually refraining from thought processes that would normally cause physical pain.

These two examples of the science of mindfulness show how potent it can be on a regular basis. One study drives this point home.  In one study done with subjects that had at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt, the subjects resting brain looked similar when scanned to a normal person’s brain while he or she is meditating.  In other words, the people with 40,000 hours of mindfulness practices are in a constant state of mindfulness according to the brain scans.  Although there is still much to learn about the science of mindfulness, what has already been discovered is proof positive it works!