What Science Can Tell Us about How Mindfulness Actually Works
Throughout recent decades there have been increasing attempts by scientists to understand how mindfulness actually works. However, because there are so many factors that could potentially exert an influence, coming to a definitive conclusion over the precise mechanisms of action that underlie the biological, psychological, or spiritual changes caused by mindfulness practice is not an easy task. Consequently, when scientists propose a mechanism in terms of how mindfulness causes change in individuals receiving mindfulness training, these proposals tend to be treated as just one piece of the larger jigsaw rather than as the final verdict. In today’s post, we summarise and discuss a selection – covering numerous remits of scientific enquiry – of the mechanisms of action that have been put forward to date.
- Perceptual Shift: Practising mindfulness is believed to create a perceptual shift in terms of how individuals respond and relate to thoughts, feelings, and sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, sights, smells, pain, etc.). This greater perceptual distance is understood to help individuals objectify their psychological and somatic experiences and to regard them as passing phenomena.
- Increase in Spirituality: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness can increase spirituality and that this, in turn, acts as a buffer against feelings of loneliness as well as the various adversities we encounter in life. This growth in spiritual awareness is understood to help broaden an individual’s perspective on life and cause them to re-evaluate their life priorities.
- Reduced Autonomic and Psychological Arousal: It has been shown that mindfulness – and in particular conscious breathing – increases vagus nerve output which causes the heart and breathing rate to lower. Keeping the heart and breathing rate under control is understood to go hand in hand with remaining calm and being able to cope with stressful situations.
- Neuroplastic Changes: Neuroplasticity refers to changes in the brain neural pathways and synapses. Neuropsychological functional and structural imaging studies have demonstrated that mindfulness practice results in neuroplastic changes in various areas of the brain (including the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures). These neuroplastic changes are believed to improve an individual’s ability to regulate and remain in control of their choices, feelings, and behaviours.
- Increase in Self-Awareness: Mindfulness is understood to improve self-awareness which, in-turn, is believed to make it easier for people to identify and label negative mood states and thinking patterns. This relates closely to the above ‘perceptual shift’ mechanism because being able to accurately label mental processes makes it easier for people to objectify them.
- Addiction Substitution: One recently proposed mechanism of mindfulness (and other forms of Buddhist meditation) is that the peaceful/blissful states associated with mindfulness can be substituted for the highs and various forms of mood modification experienced by individuals with addictive behaviours. This particular mechanism was actually proposed by ourselves and it basically involves a ‘negative addiction’ (e.g., to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) being substituted with a ‘positive addiction’ (i.e., to mindfulness/meditation).
- Urge Surfing: Another proposed mechanism of action (not by ourselves this time) relating to how mindfulness works as a treatment for addiction is that of ‘urge surfing’. Urge surfing basically refers to the process of an individual observing and not reacting to mental urges. In other words, they surf the urge and are therefore better able to regulate habitual compulsive responses.
- Letting Go: By mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts and feelings (and other phenomena), it is believed that mindfulness practitioners cultivate a better understanding of the ‘transient’ nature of existence. This helps them to let-go of difficult situations and not to see things as fixed or permanent.
- Increase in Patience: Some scientists (including ourselves) believe that mindfulness increases an individual’s levels of patience. This is understood to reduce an individual’s desire for instant gratitude as well as their propensity for anger.
- Greater Situational Awareness: Outcomes from our own research have shown that mindfulness can help people feel more in touch with the physical and social environment in which they find themselves. This greater situational awareness is understood to improve decision-making competency, job performance, and the ability to pre-empt how a particular situation might unfold.
It is beyond the scope of today’s post to discuss every single mechanism of action that has been proposed in relation to how mindfulness causes somatic, psychological, or spiritual change. Nevertheless, the above overview represents a mixture of recently proposed mechanisms of action as well as those that are more established. As scientific enquiry continues, it is likley that new mechanisms of actions will be identified and that a more complete picture of ways in which mindfulness leads to positive change will emerge.
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