Gordon Johnson

Content note: This article contains discussion of mental health

Mindfulness has been widely dubbed a powerful solution for a wide range of issues, from the pressure of a hectic lifestyle to mental health issues. The interest surrounding mindfulness has soared exponentially in recent years, both in the general public but also the scientific community.

As it is thought of in clinical terms, mindfulness is an umbrella term covering a range of different practices, but, as defined by the NHS, generally refers to “paying more attention to the present moment”. Mindfulness meditation typically involves a breathing practice, awareness of the body and mind, and muscle relaxation. 

This can help people with feelings of depression and anxiety: Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, states that it “lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us”. This awareness of our emotional symptoms can help us deal with them more effectively.

Scientific evidence shows that mindfulness can have temporary and long-lasting effects on certain regions of the brain, perhaps most specifically on the amygdala. The amygdala is a cluster of nervous cell bodies in the central nervous system, specific to complex vertebrates, and plays a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses such as fear and anxiety.

Its practices can reduce symptoms such as stress and depression

A 2012 study performed by the Martinos Centre for Biomedical Imaging involved researchers taking fMRI scans of subjects’ brains whilst viewing images with varying emotional content (either positive, negative or neutral) before and after an eight-week training course in mindful attention meditation. While there was no significant effect on the control group, the results showed a decrease in right amygdala response. This implies that mindfulness training can improve emotional stability and response to stress, and that these effects can be long term and manifest even when an individual is not actively practising meditation. 

The research into the efficacy of mindfulness can, however, be dubious. Nicholas van Dam, a clinical psychologist and research fellow at the University of Melbourne, has stated that “there are many areas where mindfulness-based programs seem to be acceptable and promising, but larger-scale randomised, rigorous trials are needed”.

It has also been argued that such practices can be overhyped for financial profit: as the market for meditation-based apps and studios becomes increasingly saturated, it is clear to see that whether mindfulness practices are effective or not, they certainly make for lucrative business.

Mindfulness can have long-lasting effects on certain regions of the brain

Many of the problems with assessing the efficacy of mindfulness stem from the difficulty in obtaining reliable data. Sample sizes are often small and therefore not representative, and many investigations lack an adequate control group, meaning that the placebo effect cannot be ruled out. A 2015 review published in American Psychologist reported that only around 9% of research into mindfulness-based interventions that had been tested in clinical trials had included a control group. Furthermore, many previous studies have attempted to analyse the effectiveness of meditation methods by using self-rated measure, but these tend to have heavy levels of bias as the subjects are affected by their own self-perception. 

However, there have been concerted efforts to address this. Researchers from John Hopkins University reviewed almost 19,000 studies on meditation practices to find trials which met their rigorous criteria. Out of the 47 trials which met these standards, they found that such programmes can indeed have positive effects on anxiety, depression and pain.

Furthermore, in order to try and quantify the analysis of the effects of mindfulness training, medical imaging techniques may be used. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) can demonstrate objectively that mindfulness practices can have an effect by measuring voltage fluctuations arising due to ionic currents within the neurons of the brain, leading to an assessment of the electrical activity of the brain.

Previous studies have claimed that meditation can be associated with decreased alpha blocking. Alpha waves are neural oscillations with frequency specifically in the range of 8-12Hz, and alpha blocking refers to the disappearance or reduction in amplitude of these waves when an individual is focused on a specific stimulus. This scientifically suggests that mindfulness practices can encourage relaxation.

An alternative imaging strategy is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses magnetic properties of blood haemoglobin to detect areas of the brain with increased or decreased metabolic activity. This enables researchers to view the effect of mindfulness training on different regions of the brain, and was used to show changes in amygdala activity in the Martinos’ Centre’s investigation. 


Mountain View

Meditate, and help bring calm to yourself

And while conclusions regarding meditation may be muddy, a combination of mindfulness training and an artificial physiological input may provide a way to improve cognitive ability. A study carried out by the University of New Mexico on thirty-four healthy participants revealed that combining mindfulness-based training with non-invasive electrical stimulation of the brain resulted in improvements in working memory capacity, though other abilities tested such as sensation were not affected significantly. Further developments into such fields could have applications in the future. 

While some of the research into mindfulness is contested, it can be stated with certainty that its practices can reduce symptoms such as stress and depression, while also improving focus. Better research with controlled studies into this alternative therapy may go further to support this in the future.