Mindfulness is an age-old practice that makes us feel more at home in our heads, and it’s not always easy. Mindfulness can change your life, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve focus. Just 12 minutes a day can make a measurable difference to your health and quality of life.
Beyond these comfort and performance benefits, one question remains. How does mindfulness training affect the brain?
Some studies have found that practicing mindfulness for as little as two months alters the structure of the brain, increases the amount of gray matter, and induces neuroplasticity (the ability of neurons and their networks to reorganize throughout life). It has been suggested that there is a possibility that
But in the largest and most tightly controlled study to date on this topic, researchers cast cold water on this structural hypothesis.
Using MRI technology to analyze the brains of more than 200 healthy participants, scientists found zero proof Structural brain changes from a short-term mindfulness training program lasting 8 weeks.The team published its results in the journal scientific progress.
Mindfulness may not rapidly reorganize the scaffolding of the brain, but the team found changes in neuronal function and connectivity.
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Amishi Jha, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Miami who was not involved in the study, said: reverse The benefits of mindfulness training come in many ways, just as exercise can yield a range of positive benefits.
“Structural brain changes are not a panacea to prove mindfulness training is useful or ‘do something,’” says Jha.
It probably takes more time or more targeted training for structural brain changes to show up, Jah explains.
“It is important to understand that there are many other pathways that reveal training-induced changes in neuroplasticity, such as changes in event-related activity profiles and functional connectivity.”
Read on to learn more about the science of mindfulness and how to start practicing meditation.
How mindfulness changes the brain
In the last few decades, researchers have brought mindfulness to conventional science with the aim of corroborating ancient practices common to Eastern spiritual traditions.
In multiple small trials, researchers found that mindfulness, and more specifically meditation, appears to change people’s brains. was found to change consistently. This includes areas involved in external and internal body perception, memory, and emotional regulation.
The results were astonishing. Meditation and mindfulness seem to rewire and restructure the brain faster. However, the review authors highlighted methodological issues with the data supporting these conclusions, including potential participant bias due to small sample sizes.
In turn, people need to be careful about drawing definitive conclusions from new evidence.
To test these early insights, a team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin recently recruited 218 healthy participants with no previous meditation experience or mental health concerns.
In two trials, participants underwent MRI scans to measure their brains before being randomly assigned to one of three study groups.
- 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) Course: This program is one of the most popular and rigorously researched mindfulness interventions. Studies have shown that MSBR can improve anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and substance abuse. MSBR can improve people’s quality of life and reduce stress levels. In this study, MSBR incorporated yoga, meditation, and body awareness activities.
- A non-mindfulness-based wellbeing intervention called the Health Enhancement Program: Exercise, music therapy, and nutrition practices without the mindfulness component of MSBR were included.
- Control group: This group did not receive any kind of training or change their normal life or work routines during the trial period.
After eight weeks, all participants underwent a final MRI to measure changes in brain structure.This study constitutes the largest and most rigorously designed randomized controlled trial to date. .
Although the authors of this study expected changes in the brain based on previous research, No significant difference in brain structure or neuroplasticity detected among MBSR, HEP, or control groups.
What changed was how mindful people felt before, during, and after the training session. Participants in both the MBSR and HEP groups reported higher levels of mindfulness compared to the control group. This spiked mindfulness suggests that in addition to training specifically focused on mindfulness and meditation, interventions focused on healthy habits can also induce mindful thinking. suggests.
Beyond structural change, participants experienced change nerve function When connectivity, and psychological and cognitive outcomes. The more people practiced or meditated on her MBSR outside of formal training sessions, the greater these positive side effects.
In this study, MBSR decreased the reactivity of the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. There was also increased connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Some participants also saw an increase in the posterior cingulate cortex dormant functional connections with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Jha likens these complex outcomes to exercise.
“Although beneficial, it is already generally understood that comprehensive exercise routines like cross-training are unlikely to cause specific structural changes in the body,” says Jha. “This research helps increase public understanding that the brain is no exception.”
A “mental training routine” like MBSR includes different types of practices. Although this comprehensive program has many advantages, it does not necessarily result in specific structural changes in subsets of brain regions over 8 weeks. Structurally speaking, interventions as short as 8 weeks may also not work.
Future research will reveal that duration of mindfulness or meditation fine-tunes the structure of the brain. For now, it’s still worth exploring the well-documented mental health benefits behind mindfulness.
Five steps to start practicing mindfulness:
5. Start small: You don’t need paid meditation apps or expensive in-person workshops for a more zen path. By taking a few minutes each day to sit still, focus on the sensations in your body, and allow your thoughts to flow freely, you can build a sustainable mindfulness practice.
4. Focus on acceptance: Instead of avoiding or pushing away unpleasant thoughts and feelings, let them wash over you. Try to shrug off any judgments directed at your internal state.
3. Commit: Take a few minutes each day to meditate and keep doing it. Over time, this habit becomes second nature. Just like working out, building meditation muscles takes time, reverse Written by author Jennifer Walter.
2. Talk to your mentor or guide. Developing a mindfulness practice can often feel confusing or slow.An expert or guide can outline specific strategies to speed up the process.
1. Test. Incorporate mindfulness techniques into your routine, especially during stressful moments. This will help you ride the waves of life better and feel more grounded.