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4. How mindfulness benefits the mind, brain, and body

Psychological benefits of mindfulness

In this sequence of videos and readings, we're going to dive deeper into the benefits of mindfulness. We're going to start with the psychological benefits of mindfulness--for instance, its relationship to positive emotional states and our ability to cope with stress.

Dacher provides an overview of this research in the video below. These findings aren't altogether consistent, as he explains. As you watch it, consider: How do you make sense of these somewhat conflicting findings, in light of Dacher's analysis and what you have already learned about mindfulness research? What does it make you think about the relationship betweeen mindfulness and happiness? What does it make you think about research in general?

Share your thoughts in the discussion below. Afterwards, move on to the next unit, in which Emiliana discusses the links between mindfulness and various forms of physical well-being.


Physical health benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness is often associated with the concept of "mind-body health," and this next video explains why. In it, Emiliana covers research documenting a wide range of physical health benefits associated with mindfulness, ranging from how we experience pain to how our body ages to the strength of our immune system to the toll stress takes on our body.

Then, in the following unit's video, she zeroes in on the effects mindfulness has on a particular body part: the brain. She discusses the fascinating science of "neuroplasticity," which suggests that, rather than being fixed and immutable, our brains can actually change over time due to our experiences, activities, and even patterns of thought.

As you watch these two videos, consider: How does the research described by Emiliana challenge or corroborate some of your own presumptions about the links between our minds and our bodies and brains?

After next unit's video, you'll find two readings and a video featuring Shauna Shapiro that elaborate on the encouraging implications of studies documenting neuroplasticity.



Stalking the Meditating Brain

By Tracy Picha

This article originally appeared in Mindful magazine. Reprinted with kind permission of The Foundation for a Mindful Society. All rights reserved.

Your brain is unlike any other organ in the body—it’s designed to adapt constantly. “The brain is not static. It is meant to change,” says Richie Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. No matter what we do, he tells me enthusiastically—whether it’s learning to play tennis or spending time playing “Words with Friends” on our phones—we are shaping our brains. The brain is not like a car that comes off the production line and stays the same (except for breaking down and decaying).

The brain keeps changing over its entire lifespan. And Davidson thinks that is very good news.

Here’s one very big reason that “neuroplasticity” is such good news: Davidson’s research shows that spending as little as 30 minutes per day training our minds to do something different can result in measurable changes that can be tracked in a brain scanner. And much of that research is being done by the 60-65 scientists, post-docs, research assistants, and graduate students at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin's Waisman Center, for which Davidson serves as director and which he founded in 2008.

“We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain,” Davidson says from his office on a sunny February day in Madison. “By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills. They are skills that can be cultivated.”

The broad windows of Davidson’s office on this day feature a cold, snowy canvas overlaid with geometric shadows cast from the interconnected buildings that make up the Waisman Center and the CIHM, situated near the UW Hospital and Clinics on the university’s campus. In midwinter here in Madison, the blistering cold meets its match in the ready warmth of the locals. Call for a cab here and you’re asked the question: Do you mind sharing? While it bursts at the seams when university is in session, it retains a hometown-America feel. People have time to chat and seem naturally prone to lending a hand. The fact, then, that a center devoted to exploring healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and mindfulness  is situated here seems a logical fit.

The center’s founding marked a personal and professional triumph for Davidson. As a graduate student in the mid-1970s, Davidson shocked his professors by taking off for India to explore meditation practice and Buddhist teachings. After three months there and in Sri Lanka, he came back convinced he would do meditation research. He was quickly disabused of this notion by his professors, who let him know that if he had any hope of a career in science, he’d better stow the meditation and follow a more conventional path of research. He became a closet meditator and an affective neuroscientist—a deep student of the emotions.

In the early days, Davidson says, whatever “research” there was on meditation wasn’t convincing, filled with extravagant claims of magical results but not following standard protocols or building on the methodologies of previous research in related areas. A study that correlated drops in crime with the activity of Transcendental Meditation practitioners in the vicinity (and similar misguided efforts) tainted meditation research and helped keep him in the closet. As well, he says, “the science and the methods of the time were not suited to the task of studying subtle internal experience.” They lacked technology like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which takes a moving picture of brain activity. They didn’t have any appreciation of epigenetics, the process by which our gene makeup can be changed throughout our lifetime. But above all, Davidson says, “we lacked an understanding of neuroplasticity. It is now widely accepted that the brain is an organ designed to change in response to experience and, importantly for our work, in response to training.”

Happier and healthier lives

A key part of the center’s mandate is to do what is now commonly called translational research— which involves real people in real life settings. It helps people while also advancing scientific knowledge and educating others about the value of meditation from a scientific perspective. Davidson has devoted his life to uncovering scientific discoveries that can help people live happier, healthier lives through mental skills training.

For many meditators, talking about “the brain” seems materialistic, as if all we were was a lump of electrically charged flesh; similarly, many scientists are uncomfortable talking about something as intangible as mind. Where is it? How do you measure it? Davidson is comfortable talking about both, and says that nowadays many more researchers are, too. Mind may not be so easily defined and delineated as brain, but the center uses the term healthy minds, he says, because it is minds—different types of minds—that can be trained in beneficial ways. And the effects of this training leave their mark on the brain, and can be observed and measured. These demonstrable positive results are the point. Not only do they increase Western science’s understanding of the brain’s nature and capabilities, they offer convincing evidence for U.S. institutions like the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, even the Department of Energy, that mind/brain training could offer beneficial results that would help them fulfill their missions.

In his capacity as neuroscientist and as New York Times bestselling author, Davidson is featured widely in popular media—everywhere from Time magazine to O, The Oprah Magazine, to the Harvard Business Review. Between his work and his writing, he is beyond extremely busy. Even as a long-time meditator, Davidson is quick to acknowledge how challenging it is for any of us with busy 21st-century lives to add yet another “habit”—albeit, one that science is proving leads to greater happiness and better quality of life.

“Basic neuroscience evidence suggests that small, short periods of practice done many times in a way that can actually be sprinkled throughout the day is a really powerful way to promote enduring change in the brain,” Davidson says. “It has yet to be studied in the specific area of meditation practice, but we can ask the question, for example, is it better to sit for 30 minutes a day, or is it better to have 10 three-minute periods of practice that are sprinkled throughout the day? We don’t know the answer to that.”

But Davidson is taken with the question. So much so, he’s involved in a new initiative this year: developing curricula for the workplace. “The short practices will be designed to be self-administered on a computer and are meant to be sprinkled throughout the day—practices you will get feedback on. It’s kind of like a Fitbit for the mind.”

Any good communicator—and Davidson is one— knows the power of the sound bite. What impresses, though, is witnessing him toggle between highly complex neuroscience and very real-world concerns of how to live a better life. Our conversation veers toward how teaching mindfulness can sometimes be mistaken as training people to simply improve their own performance—through better concentration, through better training of attention and awareness. Davidson, interjects: “What we do always needs to be in the service of others. That’s the difference.”

Davidson’s research and message has been embraced globally, including by the political and business communities. A few weeks prior to our meeting, he attended the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he spoke to world leaders and CEOs about precisely those healthy qualities  of mind and the importance of cultivating them. 

Studying well-being as a skill

It has taken Davidson decades of rigorously designed scientific studies to say with certainty that well-being is a skill that can be learned. Neuroplasticity, now a widely accepted concept, was a key development.

“Research on neuroplasticity has given us a broad conceptual framework in which to place the research on meditation,” he says. “And what we see is that even short amounts of practice can induce measurable changes in the brain.

“Our brains are constantly being shaped, wittingly or unwittingly—mostly unwittingly. We tend to be pawns of the forces around us. Our work, by contrast, is inviting us all to actually take more responsibility for our minds and our brains.”

So what’s being measured and how? Fortunately, technology is steadily providing non-invasive ways to observe the human brain at work. CIHM relies on some of the best tech available: magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, and positron emission tomography, or PET-CT scanner, which generates 3D images of functional processes in the body and brain.

The elegantly shaped, massive machinery sits in the CIHM’s dimly lit, cooled rooms. The ceiling above the MRI is removable: A crane can lift one out and lower a new one in whenever a replacement is deemed necessary. That is, of course, after millions of dollars have been raised to procure such a thing.

Just one of the ways CIHM is putting that technology to use is by exploring how the brain affects the body—and vice versa. Davidson underscores that “these pathways are bidirectional.” Essentially, changing our brain can change our body, and changing our body can change our brain.

“One of the important foci in our research is looking at inflammation, which has been implicated in many chronic illnesses,” Davidson says. “And there’s now increasing evidence to suggest that at a very basic biological level, certain kinds of meditation practices seem to modulate inflammatory systems. They down-regulate particular molecules—we call these proinflammatory cytokines—which are directly implicated in inflammation.”

He cites a CIHM study that was published in the February, 2014 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology—“we looked at gene expression in peripheral blood lymphocytes—looking specifically at genes that have been implicated in inflammation.”

For that study, Davidson and others, including scientist Melissa Rosenkranz, examined participants who, over the course of one day engaged in intensive meditation practice. They were, as Davidson describes them, “people like us, with day jobs” and regular lives—albeit people who were familiar enough with meditation practice that doing it for a day in the lab was feasible. These were not, however, the long-term meditators Davidson studied in the early 2000s, monks whom he had hooked up to electrodes in order to study brain function both during and after meditation.

Participants for the gene study came into the lab and meditated for eight hours. Blood samples were taken before and after those hours of practice and then Davidson and crew looked for gene-expression changes over the course of that time in the lab. Results from this meditator group were compared to a control group that was not familiar with meditation and that came into the laboratory for “a day of leisure.” That group watched quiet videos, read, and took gentle walks.

The findings? The control-group participants didn’t show the same kind of gene-expression changes, Davidson says. It’s the first study that shows “we can actually see gene-expression changes within a very short period of time.”

As any hard-nosed scientist would, Davidson is quick to put things in context. “This is really just the beginning,” he says. “There are many more questions this study raises than we were able to answer.”

Understanding how gene expression is “not fixed and deterministic” is not a new concept for Davidson. He addresses it in his 2012 book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, written with Sharon Begley:

Our DNA is more like an extensive CD collection. Just because you have a CD doesn’t mean you will play it, and just because you have a gene doesn’t mean that it is turned on (or as geneticists say, “expressed”). Instead, the extent to which genes are expressed is strongly affected by the environment. Thus, while we may have, say, a genetic propensity for anxiety, being raised in an environment that nurtures equanimity can silence that “anxious DNA” and prevent it from having an effect in the brain and thus on our behavior or temperament.  It is as if we never slip that CD into the player. 

Davidson invites us to imagine how contemplative practices being a habitual and widespread part of daily life might keep nudging us toward healthy habits of mind. He also creates environments where contemplative practices do become habitual so that he and other scientists can directly test the effect meditation might have in real-world settings.

To date, there are more than 20 studies underway at CIHM. Some examine mental and physical health and illness. Others look at the effects of meditation and compassion training. Others consider the effect on our brains of acts of compassion, and still others look at child development and education. It’s no wonder funding agencies, the university, his colleagues, and a whole generation of newly minted neuroscientists put their faith in Davidson and his work. It’s going to help a lot of people. It already is.

Tracy Picha is a freelance writer and a former editor of Mindful magazine.

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