Teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield have helped introduce the Western world to mindfulness meditation, a Buddhist-based practice in which the meditator endeavors to keep his or her consciousness fully on the present moment. One of the most common types of mindfulness meditation consists of placing one’s focus on one’s breath while sitting closed-eyed on a cushion or chair. If the mind wanders, the meditator brings his or her attention back to the breath.
Among other things, mindfulness meditation has been credited with the alleviation of stress, depression, PTSD, HIV progression, multiple sclerosis symptoms, and brain atrophy. According to a Carnegie Mellon University study that was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry on January 29, it may also help reduce inflammation, thus lowering the risk of such inflammatory diseases as cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
Approximately half of the Carnegie Mellon study’s 35 unemployed, stressed-out adult participants attended a three-day mindfulness meditation retreat, while the other half attended a three-day relaxation retreat whose regimen did not include mindfulness meditation. All subjects were given five-minute resting-state brain scans before and after the retreats. The researchers also studied blood samples from each participant before the retreats and four months afterward. The subjects who completed the mindfulness meditation program were found to have lower levels of the inflammatory health biomarker interleukin 6 than the participants who attended the relaxation retreat.
Mindfulness meditation reduces levels of interleukin 6 by altering patterns of functional connectivity: communication between different regions of the brain. “By modulating functional connectivity, you’re affecting the cell groups that influence the release of inflammatory markers and stress hormones,” one of the Carnegie Mellon researchers, Adrienne Taren, MD/PhD, tells Reset.
Taren and her colleagues found that mindfulness meditation increased the connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex, one of the default-mode, resting-state regions of the brain, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain associated with attention and executive function. “By doing that, it seems to facilitate more effective emotion regulation as well as stress resilience,” Taren explains. (A previous Carnegie Mellon study revealed a link between stress and disease-promoting inflammation.)
This study’s mindfulness meditation retreat was modeled after Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Centering on guided meditations led by a certified mindfulness meditation instructor, it included breathing exercises, mindful movement, and mindful eating exercises and body scans (a Vipassana exercise that involves bringing one’s awareness to each part of the body).
The research team’s decision to offer guided mindfulness meditation within the framework of a three-day retreat was partly based on considerations of retention, participation, and follow-up. “Particularly in a high-stress population, you have people with time constraints,” Taren notes. “You want to have a high level of retention that you might not get if you ask them to come back for one hour once a week for eight weeks or something.”
This three-day retreat format also furthered the research team’s goal of finding a “minimal effective dose.” “[That’s] not to say that we wanted people to have one giant shot of meditation and have them be done with it, because it’s a practice that you cultivate, and it’s kind of a use-it-or-lose-it thing in terms of the health benefits, brain benefits, and psychological benefits,” Taren says. “But there is interest in seeing if we can have an effect by just doing three intensive days as opposed to once a week or one hour a day for eight weeks.”
The relaxation group participated in the same activities as the mindfulness group, but with any element of mindfulness removed. “That’s really important,” Taren notes. “We’re working with a really high-stress population, and if we had just used a control group that did nothing, it would be easy to look at this data and say, ‘Well, of course you see inflammation going down and brains changing — you took scared people to a retreat for three days. How do you know it wasn’t just that they relaxed?’ So the only element that’s different between the two groups is the mindfulness component.”
According to Taren, mindfulness practice is not always relaxing. “It can be hard; it can be more stressful initially,” she says. “It’s work, especially at the beginning, so there’s obviously some benefit you’re getting that’s not from the relaxation.”
As of now, there is no definitive explanation as to why mindfulness exercises are more effective in lowering stress than non-mindfulness-based relaxation activities, nor is it clear which components of mindfulness are most important to the reduction of stress. “Right now we’re operating under the assumption that they’re all important to some extent,” Taren offers. She adds that some of the key elements of mindfulness are focused attention and awareness, as well as an emphasis on being non-judgmental and on acknowledging emotions without reacting to them. By contrast, people who take part in relaxation exercises may be ruminating, letting their minds wander and/or judging their own thoughts and emotions.
“I think when a lot of people who don’t have any background in mindfulness think of meditation, they think they need to sit and block out their thoughts,” Taren states. “That’s not what mindfulness is; it’s acknowledging these things as they arise and just being very aware of them. As you get better at it, you can take your mental flashlight and direct it toward the positive or helpful [thoughts and emotions] and away from the negative ones. Hopefully even when you’re not actively engaging in a guided mindfulness meditation session or something, your brain gets better at noticing those things and nonjudgmentally accepting them, not reacting them, and directing your mind towards a more productive avenue.”
According to Taren, the stress relief that relaxation provides is temporary, whereas mindfulness meditation is a tool for decreasing stress reactivity in the long-term. She cites classic studies of experienced meditators whose brains appeared to remain in a meditative state even during non-meditative moments. “When you look at people who have done four years of Zen Buddhist meditation, their resting-state, default-mode network looks more like the network of regions that you would see light up in someone who was meditating,” she notes. “In general, in people who practice mindfulness, you see decreased activity in the amygdala — that stress-responsive, fight-or-flight region.” She adds that mindfulness practice has been linked to a decrease in amygdala size. “And then conversely, after meditation sessions and in people who meditate [regularly], you see a more functional prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your higher-order executive functions,” she offers.
Science has yet to reveal all of the specifics as to why mindfulness meditation helps fight stress, reduce inflammation, and prevent disease, but as one of meditation’s more controversial proponents, the notorious Aleister Crowley, once wrote, “Who hath the How is careless of the Why.” In other words, as long as we know how to use it for those means, do we really need to know why it works?