Effects of Mindfulness
by: Stacy Lu Monitor on Psychology March 2015
Mindfulness training holds promise for treating mood disorders partly because it may lead to changes in patients’ brains, improving connectivity among some brain areas and changing tissue density in key regions, research suggests.
The evidence indicates that when people pay attention to the present moment – an experiential self-reference – they use a different set of neural pathways than when they engage in narrative self-reference to think about experiences over time, explains University of Toronto neuroscientist Norman Farb, PhD, who has studied the brains of meditators using fMRI (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2007).
Mindfulness- Based Cognitive Therapy encourages people with mood disorders to pay attention to sensations and feelings rather than evaluative thoughts. That in turn exercises and strengthens the pathways involved in experiential self-reference. “Mindfulness changes the brain by allowing people to access this present-moment pathway,” says Zindel Segal, PhD, a professor at the University of Toronto. “This is vitally important for working with sad mood states.”
If patients haven’t had mindfulness training, Segal adds, they will continually activate their pathways for narrative self reference and executive control and their present-moment pathways will get weaker.
Researchers are exploring how the ability to live in the moment may persist beyond mindfulness practice sessions. One study by Veronique Taylor and colleagues at the University of Montreal that used fMRI to compare experienced meditators with novice meditators found that even in a resting state, the former had less activity among areas of the brain involved in self-referential thoughts (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2013).
Mindfulness may even change tissue density in some regions. Harvard University neuroscientist Sara Lazar, PhD, and colleagues took MRIs of 16 participants who had never meditating, then scanned them again after they participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based, stress-reduction program. The researchers found that participants’ grey matter density shrank in the amygdala and the change was correlated with decreases in stress; there was no control group for the study. The amygdala is also implicated in anxiety disorders, which may be one way in which mindfulness helps ease anxiety and stress as well as depression, Lazar says.
An additional analysis of the same group of participants showed that they also had increases in density in two other brain. areas: the posterior cingulate cortex, which is related to sustained attention, and the left hippocampus, which may contribute to emotion regulation (Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011). In addition, researchers saw changes in areas of the brain stem potentially related to serotonin production – alterations that were positively correlated with self-reported aspects of psychological well-being (Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 2014). The neural changes brought on by mindfulness appear to be following the basic rules of neuroplasticity, Lazar says.
“If you practice something new, then you’re going to get enhanced connectivity in neural structures;’ she explains. “That can mean an increase in the number of synapses or changes in neurotransmitter release that promote an increase in function.”
Still, Lazar cautions that mindfulness isn’t a quick fix. Resulting neurological changes are likely to be temporary and thus require continued practice.
“Meditation is a lifestyle,” she says.