Mindfulness Is More Than A Buzzword: A Look At The Neuroscience Behind The Movement
The popularity of mindfulness in the western world has skyrocketed in recent years. It’s on the cover of magazines and appears on the evening news. Celebrities swear by it, scientists study it, monks still practice it and business leaders use it to thwart burnout.
As mindfulness becomes a buzzword in our modern world, its meaning has grown increasingly murky. So what, exactly, is it? Mindfulness is not a new idea. Core to Buddhism, the concept can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when it appeared in the 37 Factors of Enlightenment—the Buddha’s most essential teachings. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, offers one of the most widely-used definitions of mindfulness: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Kabat-Zinn is often credited with piquing the west’s recent interest in mindfulness. In 1990, the Center for Mindfulness founder created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, designed to develop patients’ mindfulness using meditation, body awareness, and yogic exercises.
Since then, mindfulness has been a topic of extensive research, much of which suggests that the practice has considerable physical and mental health-related benefits.
A major theme in mindfulness research is its effects on mood-related disturbances and anxiety: mindfulness-based therapies have been shown to reduce rates of depressive relapse, and a recent meta-analysis found that mindfulness meditation programs were associated with reduced anxiety, depression and pain.
But what about mindfulness might underlie these positive changes? While the exact mechanisms are still largely unknown, several scientists have proposed that the health benefits of mindfulness are caused, in part, by four interrelated factors: attention regulation, body awareness, change in perspective on the self and emotion regulation.
Attention regulation is the ability to maintain awareness on an object of meditation, like the breath. It is trained, in part, by gently and repeatedly bringing attention back to the object of meditation when distracted. Sustained attention can help develop positive emotions.
Body awareness is the ability to monitor the body’s sensations, and is thought to foster emotional awareness and regulation, and empathic response. It can be achieved by applying mindfulness to the body, perhaps with a “body scan,” as described by Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living.
Change in perspective on the self is the ability to alter self-perception. In Buddhism, the belief that the self is permanent and unchanging is thought to be the core cause of psychological distress. Mindfulness is thought to increase one’s ability to see the self as impermanent and changing, and lead to enduring forms of happiness.
Emotion regulation is the ability to adjust emotional responses through a variety of techniques and strategies. Those who practice mindfulness are instructed to expose themselves to emotions, feeling and not reacting to the emotional experience, regardless of whether or not it is pleasant or unpleasant. Said more simply, emotions and their related bodily responses are to be accepted. This kind of emotional exposure facilitates well-being and the arising and passing of emotions.