Mindfulness Meditation-Changing the Brain

During Jan Plan of last year, I took an Integrative Mindfulness class. I’d heard a range of opinions from those who took the course previously—the worst were complaints of boredom and restlessness while the best raved of relaxation and reduced stress. I experienced all of those feelings during my four-week mindfulness intensive, but by the conclusion of the month, I successfully completed a 7-hour mindfulness retreat. During that time, I also, hopefully, caused the slightest of neural changes in my brain (though I’ve struggled to continue with daily practicing).

Many types of meditation exist and neurological research varies in terms of which form is practiced. Focused attention meditation (FAM) requires a person to focus on a chosen object and monitor one’s concentration. After becoming familiar with FAM, people often progress to open monitoring mediation (OMM). Rather than focusing on an object like in FAM, in OMM one simply remains in the monitoring state, “without selecting, judging, or focusing on any particular object” (Lippelt et al., 2014). Loving-kindness meditation consists of repetition of phrases and developing and expressing care and compassion first to oneself and then to others progressively more unlikeable. Positivity replaces negative thoughts and associations. During my class, we learned Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zin at the University of Massachussets Medical Center and combines the above mindfulness meditations, yoga, and body awareness.

Research in mindfulness began by studying the brains of Buddhist monks. Monks were found to be able to switch between the extrinsic network, which focuses on the outside world, and the instrinsic network, which focuses on oneself. Usually, people switch from one network to the other. By activating both networks simultaneously, monks can achieve “oneness.”

Since it could be that those with certain brain structure and function are drawn to mindfulness and meditation, longitudinal studies are necessary to discern cause and effect of mindfulness.

One longitudinal study had 16 participants who did not have experience with meditation practice MBSR for eight weeks. They completed one 2.5 hours session each week and approximately 30 minutes of yoga, body scans, or sitting meditation on their own each day. Participants underwent an fMRI scan before and after the two months of mindfulness practice. Post-scans, compared with controls, showed increased gray matter in the left hippocampus. Increased gray matter was also found in the posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, lateral cerebellum, and brainstem. As expected, MBSR participants showed increased mindfulness on

A review on FAM, OMM, and loving-kindness meditation proposes that more research needs to be done to evaluate the differences between types of meditation and the underlying functional mechanisms and neural circuitry. Only minimal research has compared types of meditation. FAM and OMM may affect attention in different ways: “FAM induces a narrow attentional focus due to the highly concentrative nature of the meditation, whereas OMM induces a broader attentional focus by allowing and acknowledging any experiences that might arise during meditation” (Lippelt et al., 2014). This example shows makes the need for more systematic differentiation of types of meditation in studies.

Research in neuroscience and meditation is young and there’s so much more to learn! Despite imperfections in the research, there’s no doubt that practicing mindfulness positively affects the mind and body.

 

Try a guided body scan, mindful movement (yoga), loving-kindness meditation, and more! Nancy Hathaway, my Integrated Mindfulness teacher, has many guided meditations on her website. http://nancyhathaway.com/links

Read more about the incredible findings from studies of Buddhist monks’ brains! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/05/how-you-can-train-your-mi_n_3688660.html

 

References

Holzel, B. K., Carmondy, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191, 36-43.

Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindress meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity—A review. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1083.

 

 

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