PhD Student Laura Lungu explains the science behind meditation and how it's helped her studiesPixabay/Geralt

Mindfulness has become a buzzword in the mental health realm around Cambridge, and has garnered considerable attention during exam term as a powerful tool to reduce stress, improve focus, and regulate emotional responses. Several colleges offer mindfulness and meditation classes, such as the Centre for Teaching and Learning. However, its benefits go beyond exam season and are greater when practised consistently outside of stressful times. Mindfulness not only enhances our performance and is an omnipresent remedy in tackling mental health, but also nurtures prosocial qualities and fosters deeper, kinder and more genuine social interactions.

But what does science reveal about the effects of mindfulness on the brain? Are they short-lived or long-lasting? After all, why even bother trusting and investing in this magical tool if you don’t exactly know how it works?

Mindfulness leads to long-lasting changes in your brain

One of the most intriguing discoveries about the neuroscience of practising mindfulness is that it makes long-lasting changes at a neurophysiological level. Mindfulness isn’t a practice aimed at escaping life, or making unpleasant moments disappear. In fact, it can be more aptly described as a skill that enhances awareness of the present moment in a non-judgmental, clear and undistracted way. “The valence of the moment is unimportant, one’s attention to it is” is the essential mantra of mindfulness. This is one of the techniques used in meditation, with the specific goal of cultivating awareness and acceptance of the present moment. The current western practice stems from the Buddhist “Vipassana” practice, which regards mindfulness as simply a “quality of mind”.

“There are a plethora of benefits to practising meditation, and I do consider it a core skill to be developed”

Cultivating mindfulness is really useful in an ever-increasing distracting world: it has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression, and improve attention, emotional regulation and cognitive function. Mindfulness improves abilities for sustained attention, attentional regulation and cognitive control while also making us less likely to mind-wander and get distracted.

Mindfulness cultivates emotional resilience by modulating our emotional responses. Evidence supporting this comes from studies showing a reduced “reactivity” in the amygdala – an emotional regulation centre triggering a fight-or-flight response – as well as reduced levels of grey matter in those who practise mindfulness. Further evidence for the effects of mindfulness on emotional regulation comes from the increased activity in an area of the brain called the insula, which is associated with a heightened awareness of bodily sensations and emotions.

“Compassion begins with self-compassion”

Meditation also prevents neurodegeneration. Mindfulness improves neural plasticity, which naturally deteriorates over time. Meditation increases your “grey matter density” in two areas of the brain: the hippocampus – a structure responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation, and regulation of emotion – and the temporoparietal junction – responsible for empathy and compassion. Experienced meditators preserve a thicker prefrontal cortex, vital for memory formation, retrieval and cognitive function. A thinner prefrontal cortex, responsible for so-called “executive” function, is associated with attention deficit disorders and is a predictor for neuropathologies like Alzheimer’s.


Mountain View

Why Cambridge needs more therapy animals

One of my favourite meditation practices is called the “Loving Kindness Meditation”(AKA meta-meditation), which I discovered via the ”Waking up" App by Sam Harris. This app is actually what exposed me to the values of mindfulness, and the first time I became consistent about meditation which hasn’t stopped since my first year of PhD. The Loving kindness practice aims to cultivate loving kindness for oneself and for everyone around them. This is done by directing love and forgiveness towards a person you have an uncomplicated relationship with, transposing that to yourself, and then gradually directing the same compassion towards those you have complicated relationships. Compassion begins with self-compassion.

On a neural level, mindfulness training leads to increased activation in brain regions associated with empathy and altruistic behaviour and regions of the brain associated with joy and positive affect when engaging in acts of kindness and altruism.

Overall, there are a plethora of benefits to practising meditation, and I do consider it a core skill to be developed. I’ve found that having these 10- to 20-minute sessions in my day had a huge impact on my general approach to life and experiences and improved my wellbeing by large margins. Mindfulness has helped me nurture and foster deeper, kind relationships with my friends and myself – and I hope that the same is also true for you. I would wholeheartedly recommend this practice, and now that you know the neurophysiological basis for it, there’s no reason to doubt it or postpone it any longer.