The Scientific Research of Mindfulness

Over the past few decades there have been numerous studies on the benefits of the meditative state of mind in contributing to holistic health and well being.

One of the first scientists to do so was Dr Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard’s Medical School. He developed understanding of the ‘relaxation response’ (1975), a mechanism of the body that can neutralise the ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations. He found that the ‘relaxation response’ could be triggered by meditation and that when this occurs it causes the following positive physiological changes. It reduces the body’s heart and breathing rates, blood pressure and muscle tension. At the same time alpha waves (the normal brainwaves of a person who is awake but relaxed) in the brain increase. He was able to show that many traditional meditation techniques trigger a measurable relaxation response and provided evidence of the health benefits of regular meditation practise such as stress management and reducing high blood pressure.

In 2008, Dr Benson also conducted research into how methods such as visualisation, meditation and deep breathing switch off disease causing genes at the same time as they switch on genes that actively protect against illness. During the study the genetic makeup of long-term practitioners of meditation and similar relaxation methods were compared to a control group of people who never use these methods. It was found that specific disease-fighting genes were active in the practitioners that were inactive in the control group. When the control group began to practise the same methods, after two months of daily practise, the constitution of their genes began to change. Specific genes that help fight inflammation kill diseased cells and protect the body from cancer and other forms of damage began to switch on.
Another study by psychologist David Mc Celland, Harvard University demonstrated how positive states of mind can improve our physical health. He showed a group of students a film of Mother Teresa working among Calcutta’s sick and poor. The students reported that the film stimulated feelings of compassion. Afterward, he analysed the students’ saliva and found an increase in immunoglobulin-A, an antibody that can help fight respiratory infections.
Neuroscientist, Sara Lazar of Harvard University conducted research into the impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training. The brains of those volunteers who received 8 weeks MBSR training were scanned before and after training. There were measurable changes in two important brain areas, an increase in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning and shrinkage in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress. This decrease in size of the amyygdala correlated with lowered stress levels in those who received the training and the more they reduced their stress through meditation, the smaller the amygdala got. A control group that didn’t receive any MBSR training showed no such brain changes in scans conducted 8 weeks apart.
MRI scans have been used in many research projects including that of Kathy Sykes, a professor of Bristol University to see what evidence there is to support the idea that meditation is beneficial and associated with changes in the brain. MRI scans in long-term meditators showed that it has an effect on the parts of the brain that involve paying attention.
Scientists have also used EEG machines to understand what happens in the brain when someone is meditating. The brain waves which have been observed when we are awake and alert and aware of our surroundings and normally thinking are called Beta waves. These are high frequency waves and the more stressed you become, the more intense these beta waves become. The brain emits Alpha waves when we are in a relaxed state of wakefulness, commonly known as ‘the meditation state’. Theta waves have been recorded which indicate a deep meditative and relaxation state. These waves are predominant at the ages of 2-5 years old when we are at our most creative and imaginative. When people enter deep meditation, there is an increase in theta waves as well as alpha waves which give rise to that feeling of ‘bliss’. Delta waves are very low-frequency brain waves and are present when we are asleep and have also been detected in babies.