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Mindfulness science

 


Jon Kabat-Zinn, a microbiology Ph.D. then teaching at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, was inspired in the late 1970s to apply the basic principles of mindfulness meditation to patients in a medical setting. His work developing the MBSR program proved effective in helping alleviate the suffering of chronic and previously debilitating medical conditions such as chronic pain. It also served as fertile ground for a systematic set of research investigations in collaboration with one of the founders of the field of affective neuroscience, Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

Studies of MBSR have consistently found several key developments that demonstrate its effectiveness as a health-promoting activity. These may be key to the “science of mindfulness."

First, a “left-shift” has been noted in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced following MBSR training. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Naturally, such an approach state can be seen as the neural basis for resilience. Second, the degree of this left-shift is proportional to the improvement seen in immune function. Our mind not only finds resilience, but our body’s ability to fight infection is improved. At the University of California, Los Angeles, David Cresswell and his colleagues have found that MBSR improves immune function even in those with HIV. Improved immune system function may help explain the increase in healing found in the psoriasis treatment studies with mindful reflection during treatment.

Th
ird, MBSR studies reveal that patients feel an internal sense of stability and clarity. Using a modified version of a general MBSR approach in our own pilot study at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, we’ve found that adults and adolescents with attentional problems achieved more executive function improvements (sustaining attention, diminishing distractibility) than are accomplished with medications for this condition.

Other researchers (Alan Wallace, Richie Davidson, Amiji Jha) have also found significant improvements in attentional regulation in those who have had mindfulness meditation training, such as enhanced focus as revealed in the reduction of the “attentional blink,” or times when new information is not seen because of prolonged attention on the prior stimulus.
Some of these studies have been done during three-month retreats with the primary focus on isolated meditative practice rather than group discussions.
Fourth, researchers in a wide array of mental health situations have found that adding mindfulness as a fundamental part of their treatment strategies has proven to be essential in treating conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and drug addiction, and is also helpful in the prevention of chronically relapsing depression.

Some insight into the possible core mechanisms that enable application to the treatment of a wide range of mental disorders was offered in a recent study by Norman Farb and colleagues in Toronto. After just the eight-week MBSR program, subjects were able to alter their brain function in a way that confirmed they could distinguish the “narrative chatter” of their baseline states from the ongoing sensory flow of here-and-now experience. This ability to develop discernment—to differentiate our unique streams of awareness—may be a crucial step for disentangling our minds from ruminative thoughts, repetitive destructive emotions, and impulsive and addictive behaviors.

Finally, studies of mindfulness-based programs have revealed that medical students experienced improved empathy and physicians had decreased burnout and enhanced attitudes to their patients. 

Recent scientific findings on the benefits of practicing mindfulness

  • ·       University of New Mexico researchers found that participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course decreased anxiety and binge eating.
  • ·      Office workers who practiced MBSR for twenty minutes a day reported an average 11% reduction in perceived stress.  
  • ·      Eight weeks of MBSR resulted in an improvement in the immune profiles of people with breast or prostate cancer, which corresponded with decreased depressive symptoms.
  • ·      A prison offering Vipassana meditation training for inmates found that those who completed the course showed lower levels of drug use, greater optimism, and better self-control, which could reduce recidivism.
  • ·      Fifth-grade girls who did a ten-week program of yoga and other mindfulness practices were more satisfied with their bodies and less preoccupied with weight.
  • ·      A mix of cancer patients who tried MBSR showed significant improvement in mood and reduced stress. These results were maintained at a checkup six months later.
  • ·      The likelihood of recurrence for patients who had experienced three or more bouts of depression was reduced by half through Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, an offshoot of MBSR.
  • ·      After fifteen weeks of practicing MBSR, counseling students reported improved physical and emotional well-being, and a positive effect on their counseling skills and therapeutic relationships.



 
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