The Science of Mindfulness


Mindfulness and meditation are nothing new.  You can find versions of our modern mindfulness philosophy in the Hindu Vedas, in the writings of Christian church fathers, in Muslim Sufi poetry, and in Shinto ceremonies. Until recently, though, psychologists and neurologists tended to view mindfulness as “unscientific,” too hazy and spiritual to be studied in a meaningful way.

All of that changed when MRI scanning became widely available.  Now, we can look at neural images and literally see how meditation changes the brain.  Working backwards from that information, psychologists have figured out the mechanics behind mindfulness.

The problem with our brains is that the way they usually work – their autopilot, if you will – is not made for modern life.  The clearest example of this is the negativity bias, our brain’s remarkable ability to focus on anything subtly wrong or upsetting.  It’s how our cavemen ancestors immediately noticed the one vine in the forest that was really a snake, so without it, none of us would be here today.  However, it’s also why you remember one insult more easily than ten compliments.  It’s why so many people with lives that are almost perfect are never quite content.

The problem is that we humans don’t have a natural physical response to not being content.  Your body evolved to survive in the wild; as far as it’s concerned, if you’re not about to die, you’re fine.  So the protocols triggered by routine worrying are the same ones a caveman went through when he was being chased by a saber-tooth tiger.  Your adrenal gland secretes the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepiniphrene, which cause your heart rate and breathing to quicken.  Nonessential bodily functions, like digestion, the immune system, and some areas of cognition, are put on hold until the stress goes away.

The problem is that, if you allow yourself to focus constantly on the negative, the stress will never go away.  Cortisol in particular can remain in the bloodstream for long periods of time, causing you to become jittery and unfocused, whether you’re trying to work or trying to sleep.  Since your digestive system is minimally functional, you may gain or lose weight quickly.  The lack of activity in your immune system will leave you vulnerable to infections.  And the neural effects may mean that “nonessential” parts of your brain eventually stop working or even die.  This will leave you unable to relate to your friends and family, enjoy your favorite activities, or, in extreme cases, find enough motivation to live your day-to-day life – the condition known as clinical depression.

Fortunately, we humans are more than the sum of our biology.  The best way to stop anxiety and all its attendant problems before they start is to take a few minutes to do what your brain isn’t designed to: look at the big picture.  Understand that you’re not in any danger, and override the part of your mind that’s telling you otherwise.  Look at a mountain of blessings and a mole-hill of problems in the same frame.  Your blood cortisol levels will fall within a few days.  Digestive and endocrine problems should follow within a few weeks.  Even if your brain cells have already begun to die off, they will regrow.  All it takes is a little mindfulness.

To learn more about the science of mindfulness, visit our website.  If you have questions about this or any other topic, please feel free to contact us.

Find more exercises related to mindfulness based stress reduction here.