Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Does Mindfulness Help Us?

Modern psychology tells us that mindfulness can be used to help us manage the stress in our everyday lives. We are taught to pause and reflect when we are faced with a stressful situation. It is often stated as pause and be "in the now". There have been many studies done in the last few years that show this approach has real physical benefits including enhanced functioning of our immune system, reduced blood pressure, and improved cognitive functioning.

How does this work? What is it about mindfulness that helps us? A recent article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science provides some insight (see below for complete reference).

The authors define mindfulness as "the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment". They provide evidence that mindfulness is a "multi-faceted mental practice that encompasses several mechanisms". The mechanisms include 1) regulating attention; 2) awareness of body; 3) regulating emotions; and 4) changing perspective on the self.

The authors further say that these mechanisms work together in mindfulness meditation and that mindfulness is "associated with neuroplastic changes" in the brain. When they say "associated with", it means they haven't proven cause and effect, but the events are correlated. In other words, mindfulness meditation is correlated with rewiring your brain. The authors go on to say that more research is needed. No surprise there, they are researchers after all. They suggest that further research may be useful in guiding targeted treatments of psychological disorders.

I'm not sure I agree that studying these mechanisms separately will provide the benefit the authors seek. The mechanisms seem to be closely interrelated. For example, awareness of body (mechanism 2) is hard to develop without improving our ability to focus (mechanism 1, regulating attention). It's hard to argue that changing the perspective on the self (mechanism 4) can be accomplished with learning more about regulating your emotions (mechanism 3).

The main point I take away from this study is that mindfulness meditation is not a vague placebo that cures all. It requires training to develop specific meditation techniques and it has measurable results on brain functioning.

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective.
Perspectives on Psychological Science November 2011 6: 537-559, doi:10.1177/1745691611419671 
The abstract is available online at

A summary of this paper is provided at Wildmind.

© 2011 Eric Borreson