the miracle modern cure or just another in-thing?
Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Valeria Cernei.
You find a quiet place, sit down in a comfortable, natural position and close your eyes. You are present and aware of your body. Inhale, exhale, and take note of the sensation of your breathing. Your thoughts are mere mental events which you observe and let go, to finally reach a place of profound calm and awareness. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes. The story some of your friends might have told you with enthusiasm while you nod in approval and keep planning the week ahead of you. This mindfulness meditation is too much of a trend, too much of a thing to do and speak about these days to be taken too seriously, you tell yourself, just like you do about avocado toast, vintage baggy clothes and Snapchat. The difference is, though, mindfulness meditation doesn’t seem to go away. Instead, it is increasingly implemented in educational systems, work environments and clinical contexts. What if your friends actually have a point? Behind the enthusiasm of those promoting this practice there is a good deal of research into the effects and mechanisms of mindfulness meditation that supports these claims. Nevertheless, before diving into the how’s and why’s, it is worth taking a moment to clarify what mindfulness meditation is.
Mindfulness involves using awareness to direct attention to internal and external stimuli, as they unfold moment-to-moment, in a receptive and nonjudgmental way (Kabat-Zinn, 1990), and it is based on five components: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging of inner experience, and non-reactivity to inner experience (Baer et al., 2008). Basically, mindfulness meditation is yet another way of doing nothing, but it affects the body and the mind of the meditator in ways traditionally achieved through means such as therapy or medication. Given its efficiency and simplicity, could mindfulness become the modern miracle cure?
These effects suggest that mindfulness might be just what most of us need, and even more. Given the non-conceptual awareness promoted by this practice, it also has the effect of facilitating insight problem solving.
In order to get a better idea of the potential of mindfulness meditation, it is worth going through some of the main effects of this practice, such as reduced prevalence of thoughts emphasizing negativity (Kiken & Shook, 2014), increased decentered awareness, metacognitive understanding and relativistic thinking (Garland, Farb, Goldin, & Fredrickson, 2015), greater appreciation of positive experiences and more savoring (Garland et al., 2015). Moreover, it doesn’t seem to only affect the ways in which one perceives the present, but also leads to more wholesome and adaptive ways of remembering the past, by reducing negative generalizations and promoting acceptance towards one’s past experiences (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, & Soulsby, 2000). These effects suggest that mindfulness might be just what most of us need, and even more. Given the non-conceptual awareness promoted by this practice, it also has the effect of facilitating insight problem solving (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012). It is not a mystery anymore why many companies offer workshops of mindfulness meditation, an investment that is expected to pay back in increased creativity and well-being of their employees.
What is more surprising, though, is the fact that mindfulness affects the connectivity in certain brain areas, such as those associated with sleep, appetite, arousal, mood, pain regulation, emotional awareness, and autonomy
At this point, you might wonder how all of these works. How is it possible that sitting in silence and attending can have such a powerful impact on our minds? Some of the physiological effects of this practice are increased energy levels and decreases heart rate (Amutio et al., 2015), which explains it being used with cardiovascular disease patients. What is more surprising, though, is the fact that mindfulness affects the connectivity in certain brain areas, such as those associated with sleep, appetite, arousal, mood, pain regulation, emotional awareness, and autonomy (Singleton et al., 2014). All these biological routes of the effects of mindfulness meditation speak of an efficient practice, the impact of which can be traced down to specific brain processes and changes, which can be reliably measured.
There is no place for speculation, but a good dose of skepticism is always welcome. It is worth keeping in mind that mindfulness meditation, in the form it is present in the Western societies, is an adaptation of an ancient Buddhist practice, the main purpose of which is not individual happiness, but rather the detachment from the personal and the reintegration in the universal, a.k.a enlightment. In its intended form, mindfulness is a journey not without obstacles, or rather an obstacle: the self. However straightforward it may sound, attending to whatever happens in one’s mine is not a simple, and might not be a pleasant activity. Not surprisingly, a study on the adverse effects of meditation of long-term meditators found that about half of them have reported experiencing at least one adverse effect, and 7% have reported profound adverse effects, such as depersonalization, while all the meditators agreed on the general prevalence of positive effects of meditation (Shapiro, 1992). During meditation, one may become aware of various inner conflicts, which has the potential of resulting in their aggravation if not dealt with efficiently.
When taking up mindfulness meditation, it is important to understand that this practice is not the “miracle cure” it is usually portrayed to be, but rather a tool one needs to learn to handle.
When taking up mindfulness meditation, it is important to understand that this practice is not the “miracle cure” it is usually portrayed to be, but rather a tool one needs to learn to handle. Moreover, there are individual differences that influence the extent to which one may benefit from mindfulness. To reap the greatest benefits of mindfulness meditation one has to practice it regularly for a prolonged period of time, while aware of its possible drawbacks, and under the guidance of an informed teacher. Nevertheless, some of its effects can be experienced immediately, such as the increased concentration and awareness. Therefore, there is no reason not to take 10 minutes to see for yourself, is there? And to make it easier, you can try this session of guided mindful meditation for beginners.
Note: Image by Balint Földesi, licensed CC BY 2.0
Amutio, A., Martínez-Taboada, C., Hermosilla, D., & Delgado, L. C. (2015). Enhancing relaxation states and positive emotions in physicians through a mindfulness training program: A one-year study. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 20, 720-731.
Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Lykins, E., Button, D., Krietemeyer, J., Sauer, S., & … Williams, J. G. (2008). Construct validity of the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire in meditating and non-meditating samples. Assessment, 15, 329-342.
Garland, E. L., Farb, N. A., R. Goldin, P., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2015). Mindfulness broadens awareness and builds eudaimonic meaning: A process model of mindful positive emotion regulation. Psychological Inquiry, 26, 293-314.
Hosemans, D. (2015). Meditation: A process of cultivating enhanced well-being. Mindfulness, 6, 338-347.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Dell.
Kiken, L. G., & Shook, N. J. (2014). Does mindfulness attenuate thoughts emphasizing negativity, but not positivity? Journal of Research in Personality, 53, 22-30.
Ostafin, B. D., & Kassman, K. T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improved insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 1031-1036.
Shapiro D. H. (1992). Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 39 (1-4): 62-7.
Singleton, O., Hölzel, B. K., Vangel, M., Brach, N., Carmody, J., & Lazar, S. W. (2014). Change in brainstem gray matter concentration following a mindfulness-based intervention is correlated with improvement in psychological well-being. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 8.
Williams, J. M., Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z. V., & Soulsby, J. (2000). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reduces over-general autobiographical memory in formerly depressed patients. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 150–155.