Neuropsychology of Mindfulness

Clint Eastwood does it. So does Tina Turner. And Rupert Murdoch, LeBron James, and Bill Gates. At long last, a celebrity endorsement can sell the populace an actual life changer–a practice, not a product. What these and millions of other people from all walks of life have discovered is the healthy habit of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness, or the practice of attention to the present moment without judgment, may have originated in Eastern spiritual traditions, but Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on treating chronic pain with meditation at the University of Massachusetts has led to decades of research showing meditation isn’t about religion. Quite the opposite of an ethereal experience, mindfulness is all about coming to them here and now, wherever you are.

With regular, sustained practice of bringing your attention to your breath, through specific evidence-based techniques, you could experience any of these results:

  1. Decreased anxiety
  2. Stabilized mood
  3. Improved cognitive function
  4. Increased ability to manage stress
  5. Better coping with chronic pain
  6. Improved communication with partners and children
  7. Heightened self-concept

The evidence goes beyond anecdotes or press about the personal transformation of a struggling celebrity. Since the 1980s, the literature on the effects of mindfulness has increased from a single study in 1982 to 529 published studies in 2013. In 2016, we now know that along with improvements in quality of life along a spectrum of issues, mindfulness-based stress reduction, therapeutic yoga, and meditation lead to verifiable changes in the brain.

In many ways, your brain is your best advocate. It helps you work, love, play, learn, and laugh. At times, though, your brain can be more of a cross-examining prosecutor. When your left brain makes sense of information culled from life by your right-brain, sometimes it can generate interpretations that can make you–to put it simply–freak out. An experience that rubs you the wrong way gets distorted and all of a sudden, your outlook borders on apocalyptic.

Studies reveal mindfulness practice can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, panic, sleep, and depression in both adults and children, particularly those who have not found success with other treatments. Max, for instance, is a 10-year-old boy for whom math homework leads to nightly stress, panic, and feelings of incompetence. As soon as he gets frustrated by a problem, he starts tearing paper to soothe himself. In a recent conversation, Max asked what else he could destroy because he felt tearing paper was wasteful. We talked about techniques for beginning homework with 3 deep breaths, staying mindful of the present rather than giving in to anxiety about struggles that hadn’t even happened yet, and stopping for 3 deep breaths every 15 minutes. We also agreed that he would try to notice the first little signs of frustration so that he could manage his stress when it was a little seed rather than a bush of poison ivy. And lastly, Max was willing to try being mindful of positive and neutral feelings as he did his homework, such as being in the comfort of his room, enjoyment of his cat sitting with him, and feeling good when he solved a problem.

With these mindfulness skills, Max is working to calm his left brain’s interpretations of doom, so that he can manage his anxiety and get through his homework without destroying his well-being (or reams of paper). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with children uses such techniques to help them process emotional stimuli by activating parts of the brain that regulate emotional response, effectively reducing anxiety. A reader-friendly article reposted by TIME details how mindfulness can similarly help adults with stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness research is also revealing the ways that meditation and yoga can help older adults. A 2014 study on fluid intelligence published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience examined how we process novel events and more abstract reasoning–the stuff of real life, meaning day-to-day thinking and acting. Results showed that compared to a control group, meditation and yoga practitioners showed more resiliency to damage in their functional brain networks, which is a feature of the aging process, concluding that mindfulness could assist us in staying sharp as we age, as well as helping those who develop Alzheimer’s.

So how can you be more like Clint Eastwood? Maybe not a question you’ve ever asked yourself, but therapeutic yoga and mindfulness meditation are available through many venues, ranging from 8-week group programs to individualized private counseling. Research studies at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness are also frequently recruiting volunteers (both experienced and new meditators) for brain studies in this emerging field. You could both experience your brain on mindfulness–and see the fMRI to prove it. By exploring the practice of mindfulness through meditation and therapeutic yoga, you’re taking steps toward training your brain to serve you better. Go ahead, make your day.