science of mindfulness

Blue Brain

Until recent years, the prevailing thought in scientific research was that once the human brain reached adulthood, very little adaptation and change occurred until the inevitable cognitive decline of old age. This notion has since been debunked. So the good news is that we can continue to flex and increase our mental muscle well beyond childhood and adolescence. On the flip side however, this also means that if we’re not careful, our minds can turn into metaphorical couch potatoes too.

If we’re not careful, our minds can turn into metaphorical couch potatoes too.

Studies using PET scans and functional MRI have demonstrated that chronic stress actually decreases the activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain—i.e. the part of your brain that keeps your urge to scream in check when you’re already running 30 minutes late and you accidently lock your keys in the car. In other words, chronic stress can make it more difficult to keep your emotions in check and result in increased feelings of stress and anxiety.

On the other hand, mindfulness—a non-religious form of meditation that emphasizes nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment—is one of our most powerful tools to combat the detrimental effects of chronic stress and increase the capacity and function of our brains. Studies using the same advanced technology to document the effects of stress have shown that individuals who practice mindfulness have increased blood flow and activity in areas important for emotional regulation and also greater brain mass in regions such as the hippocampus that are involved in learning and memory.

In one particularly well-known study, Eileen Luders, an assistant professor of Neurology, and her colleagues at UCLA School of Medicine compared the age-matched brains of 22 meditators and non-meditators. They found that the meditators actually had more brain matter in regions of the brain that are important for emotional regulation, attention, and metal flexibility.

In a cover story article by Sarah Baldwin-Beneich, Catherine Kerr, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Brown University explains,

“One of the ways mindfulness may help relieve emotional distress is by helping you process information better, because [it] seems to enhance working memory and changes in early attentional processing, and both of these capacities are crucial for regulating emotion and behavior.”

In other words, mindfulness can help you focus better, even when under emotional and psychological stress.

“Attentional blink” is a term used by researchers to describe our temporary failure to notice things in our environment. Most of us experience this regularly—for example, when we let our mind wander and miss what a friend says to us. So in theory then, if we were able to reduce our attentional blink, we would notice more and miss less. Research using EEG recordings has demonstrated that meditators do just that. In a study in which participants had to notice two things occurring in rapid succession, meditation training improved the ability to notice both changes without any loss in accuracy. The EEG recordings revealed that meditation reduced the amount of mental bandwidth used to notice the first change, which freed up energy to focus on the second. Paying attention became easier.

Finally, as a bonus, in addition to enhancing brain function, numerous studies have also shown that practicing mindfulness and meditation may help to reduce blood pressure, enhance immune function and cardiovascular health, and may even slow the aging process.

Take home points? Emerging hard science research on the brain has demonstrated that there is an objective neurologic basis for the following findings:

  • Meditation can help you regulate your emotions better.
  • Meditation can improve your ability to focus and pay attention to details.

Being a doctor is a stressful undertaking. Emergency physicians in particular are faced with the challenge of having to make a large number of rapid, high-stakes, clinical decisions in a short amount of time, with only limited information available. In this situation, being able to keep one’s emotions in check while simultaneously absorbing and processing the maximum amount of relevant detail from the history and physical exam is clearly a desirable goal. And if we can achieve this superhuman power by sitting quietly for 10 minutes a day on a regular basis, why not try it?

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