The Science Behind Mindfulness and Meditation
“Mindfulness,” one of the central ideas in meditation could also provide important insights into how to improve brain functioning, Ohio State University psychologist Ruchika Prakash explained at the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center’s Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. Prakash has conducted a number of studies proving the benefits of mindfulness-based therapeutic practices, work that also provides a compelling window into how the brain functions.
Prakash described how mindfulness can serve as a useful framework for understanding how to improve brain health. In meditation, mindfulness refers to the development of a present-focused consciousness of one’s thoughts and emotions. “Ultimately mindfulness is about creating this deeper relationship with who we are as a person and developing greater self-awareness,” said Prakash. That “deeper relationship” then becomes a basis for therapeutic techniques that can lead to improved emotion regulation and, with time and practice, improved connectivity between different parts of the brain.
“The way we’re thinking about mindfulness both in terms of cognitive health and brain health ties into the adaptability of different networks in the brain,” Prakash said. For instance, the brain’s fronto-parietal network relates to attention and interpretation of information and stimuli; meanwhile, the “default mode” is the network that activates when the brain is at rest, or isn’t focused on a specific task. “When brain health is inadequate we see the activation of a lot of these networks together, and not this specialized recruitment of different networks,” she explained. In a healthy brain, the networks have clearly defined roles, but also have a certain flexibility. “An understanding of the flexibility and the adaptability of networks is how I would describe the neural correlates of mindfulness,” Prakash said.
There’s already proof that mindfulness-based practices can have a positive impact on brain health. Prakash found that four weeks of mindfulness training could reduce “emotional dysregulation” among multiple sclerosis sufferers — an important finding, considering 50% of chronic disease patients experience some form of depression. Prakash said that new studies also show a link between mindfulness training and reduced inflammation of the brain. Brain inflammation can result from stress, injury, or disease, and has been linked to a number of health consequences, including depression and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Mindfulness training could eventually be a way of instilling positive habits in patients, Prakash explained. Doctors now recommend exercise, sleep, diet, and meditation as means of promoting and maintaining brain health. Prakash asks “How can we integrate a lot of these different approaches and really convey an idea that works for people?,” she asks. “One of the avenues that I’m trying to get into is the idea of mindfulness promoting behavior change…Thinking about mindfulness really as a facilitator of behavior change is the next frontier within this research.”
This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.