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Mindful brains, By Emma Twait and Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus

In the world with so much buzz around us, it can be difficult to unplug from work and not think about the never-ending list of things to do. Stress accumulates…. If you can relate to these statements (let’s be honest, most of us will), you might search for ways to de-stress, and people are becoming increasingly aware of using mindfulness to unwind from the perpetual to-do list.

Mindfulness, in the form of meditation practice, has been around for thousands of years, originating when Buddhism emerged in India. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leaders of merging mindfulness with science without the religious aspect, describes mindfulness as focusing on the present moment with awareness and acceptance without judging. As mindfulness increased in popularity, it has emerged as a fruitful topic for investigation in the fields of neuroscience and psychology.

Differences in the function and structure of the brain have been found in long-term meditation practitioners, such as changes in brain activity within areas associated with social and emotional behavior, and increased volume of the brain in regions involved in memory, emotion regulation, and higher-order functioning. Even just a short-term mindfulness-meditation intervention in elementary school students can lead to lowered social anxiety, aggression, and cortisol levels (related to lower stress levels).

The Dalai Lama emphasized in an interview with Western practitioners how compassion is related to the release of suffering. This philosophy has been transferred to mindfulness training and has been shown to aid in freeing the body from mental and physical stress and “self”, as has historically been shown by meditators being able to rest on a bed of nails.

How mindfulness improves cognitive abilities and mood

Summarizing the effects of mindfulness training across many studies in adults, we see an overall decrease in anxiety, depression, and stress in clinical and non-clinical groups. These effects were, importantly, similar to those seen following other forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or pharmacological treatments. The mindfulness findings were further extended to a youth-only sample, where mindfulness was found to be particularly effective for treating psychological symptoms. Mindfulness interventions therefore appear to be moderately effective in a wide variety of age groups and populations. These effects could be explained by mindfulness improving ‘cognitive control’, a broad term referring to higher-order cognitive skills, such as attention shifting, cognitive flexibility, and planning.

Mindfulness focuses on attention and our ability to regulate our emotions, as the goal is to stay focused in the present moment and notice any thoughts or emotions that you might experience in that specific moment. Our ability to maintain this cognitive control can be influenced by behavioral and psychological problems in childhood and adolescence. This raises the question of whether training in cognitive control in early childhood can help prevent later behavioral and psychological issues. While we don’t yet know the answer to this question, it has been shown that ten hours of mindfulness training in 4-5 year old children can lead to significant improvements in cognitive control (recent review). Studies following up these children as they develop will help us to understand how long these effects persist for.

The brain mechanisms underlying these effects are still being researched. The ability to ignore physical pain just by focusing on external or internal stimuli requires the engagement of frontal brain regions that are also involved in cognitive control. Since there are several clinical populations who have difficulties with cognitive control (i.e., dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, eating disorders), mindfulness can potentially be an option for additional therapies to normalize cognitive control abilities, and to improve overall functioning and outcomes for these populations.

References

Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 10(2), 125-143. https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bpg015

Engen, H. G., Bernhardt, B. C., Skottnik, L., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2017). Structural changes in socio-affective networks: multi-modal MRI findings in long-term meditation practitioners. Neuropsychologia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.08.024

Goleman, D. (2003). Healing emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on mindfulness, emotions, and health. Shambhala publications.

Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness‐based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 10(2), 144-156. https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bpg016

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., … & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 33(6), 763-771. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005

Lorenz, J., Minoshima, S., & Casey, K. L. (2003). Keeping pain out of mind: the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in pain modulation. Brain, 126(5), 1079-1091. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awg102

Luders, E., Toga, A. W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage, 45(3), 672-678. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.12.061

Mak, C., Whittingham, K., Cunnington, R., & Boyd, R. N. (2017). Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Attention and Executive Function in Children and Adolescents—a Systematic Review. Mindfulness, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0770-6

Singh, M. G. 2013, August 15. How to lie on a bed of nails: The old east Indian trick [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://magic-magic-tricks.knoji.com/how-to-lie-on-a-bed-of-nails-the-old-east-indian-trick/.

Yoo, Y. G., Lee, D. J., Lee, I. S., Shin, N., Park, J. Y., Yoon, M. R., & Yu, B. (2016). The effects of mind subtraction meditation on depression, social anxiety, aggression, and salivary cortisol levels of elementary school children in South Korea. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 31(3), e185-e197. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2015.12.001

Zoogman, S., Goldberg, S. B., Hoyt, W. T., & Miller, L. (2015). Mindfulness interventions with youth: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 6(2), 290-302. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0260-4

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/141635209@N06


Any views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.

Emma Twait is currently a PhD student at the Technion Institute of Technology, focusing on using neuroimaging techniques to explore the effects of cognitive control interventions (e.g., meditation) in different populations and teaches yoga and mindfulness.

Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus is an Assistant Prof of Pediatrics and Neuroscience and the Director of the Educational Neuroimaging Center at the Technion, Israel and the Scientific Director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the US.

 

Discussion
  1. Linked below is a little book that provides the first explanation of mindfulness from the perspective of a neurologically based theory of learning or incentive motivation. It confirms and most importantly expands the importance of mindfulness and demonstrates why and how mindfulness can be extended to encompass one’s entire working day.

    The book is based on the work of the distinguished affective neuro-scientist and learning theorist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who was kind to vet my argument for accuracy. The work is written for a lay and scholarly audience, and the base argument (pp.45-48) can be easily understood and its procedural entailments easily applied. In other words, it’s simple to understand, and if it’s wrong you will know it quickly!

    I hope you find it of interest and worthy of criticism.

    Cheers!

    A. J. Marr

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

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