Here’s why mindfulness works

January 17, 2013 - 06:45

A new meta-analysis of the entire scientific literature on mindfulness suggests why this popular new form of therapy actually works.

A key point in mindfulness is the ability to pay full attention to the present moment with all five senses alert. Feelings and thoughts are experienced as they are, but are not assessed rationally. Rather, they are merely observed, which can lead to new personal insights. (Photo: Colourbox)

People who have been taught to use mindfulness techniques usually feel convinced that the method works.

And psychologists recently confirmed that it actually has a beneficial effect. Brain researchers, however, have so far not managed to explain why it works.

Now a Danish research team claims to have found scientific proof of a possible causal mechanism by analysing data, including brain scans and measurements of brain activity, from eight studies in a systematic review of the relevant scientific literature.

“Our study shows that mindfulness has an effect on the brains of people who have experience with the method, and this effect appears to be fundamentally different from the one we know from psychotherapy and other drug-free forms of treatment. Mindfulness may be a tool for reaching people who cannot be helped with other known methods,” says the head of the project, Janus Christian Jakobsen, MD, who researches into evidence-based medicine at the Copenhagen Trial Unit (CTU), Centre for Clinical Intervention Research at the Copenhagen University Hospital.

Mindfulness works like antidepressants

It has long been known that talk therapy with a psychologist can help us restructure our thought patterns. If we manage to turn destructive thought patterns into constructive ones, it will rub off on our emotions. We become happier and more optimistic.

If we look at a person receiving psychotherapy while lying in a brain scanner, we’ll see how the therapy increases the activity in the prefrontal and cortical regions of the brain, areas responsible for regulating our thoughts.

Our study shows that mindfulness has an effect on the brains of people who have experience with the method, and this effect appears to be fundamentally different from the one we know from psychotherapy and other drug-free forms of treatment. Mindfulness may be a tool for reaching people who cannot be helped with other known methods.
Janus Christian Jakobsen

As we start gaining control of our thought patterns, the brain activity in the areas responsible for our emotions – the limbic system, the amygdala and the striatum – starts to calm down.

This means that people with mental health problems such as stress or depression can use talk therapy to indirectly regain control of their emotions via their thoughts. This is known as a ‘top-down’ mechanism.

According to the new meta study, mindfulness differs from psychotherapy by acting directly on the regions of the brain that regulate our emotions. This method inhibits the activity in these areas, enabling us to think more clearly. This adjustment is known as ‘bottom-up’.

“People who have practiced mindfulness over a long period appear to experience a directly stabilising effect on their emotional lives. There will still be plenty of emotions, but they seem to be more manageable,” says Jakobsen.

Observe your emotions

This method can for instance be helpful if you have a tendency for excessive jealousy. Instead of telling yourself that you can’t possibly compete with that beautiful man who’s being a bit too chatty with your girlfriend at a party, you can go into another room, close your eyes and try to observe the feeling of being jealous. If you manage to assess the feeling without relating to it rationally, the feeling will eventually start to lose its strength.

But this level of abstraction is not easy, which is why it’s important to practice. If you do it for long enough, it’s possible to gain more control of your emotional life.

People who have practiced mindfulness over a long period appear to experience a directly stabilising effect on their emotional lives. There will still be plenty of emotions, but they seem to be more manageable.
Janus Christian Jakobsen

“Mindfulness has become popular among Danes, a great many of whom sign up for day courses in mindfulness,” says the doctor.

“These courses can give a general idea of what it’s all about. But if you really want to benefit from the method, you need prolonged training with an experienced mindfulness instructor.”

Beginners can also benefit

A mere weekend course is, however, not a waste of time. It teaches some of the basic techniques for controlling breathing, which can indirectly affect the emotions.

“Our findings indicate that beginners experience an effect in the emotional regions of the brain similar to the effect achieved in psychotherapy. The effect comes as a result of an improved control over one’s thoughts,” says Jakobsen.

The findings have just been published in the Clinical Psychology Review.

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Dann Vinther