Friday, February 19, 2010

The Science of Mindfulness - Daniel J. Siegel

The current issue of Shambhala Sun is focused on mindfulness.

Inside the March 2010
of the Shambhala Sun

Here you can view full articles and excerpts from the new "Mindful Living Guide" issue of the Shambhala Sun, as well as related web-only exclusives.

Just click on any title to start exploring.

Editorial: Why We're Taking Mindfulness to Heart

By Barry Boyce, Senior Editor of the Shambhala Sun.
Mindfulness is a hot topic in both books and blogs so it's great that they have put together a great group of teachings, including this one from the hottest neuroscientist in the field, Dan Siegel.

Siegel's most recent book is The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation has just been released.

The Science of Mindfulness

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. looks for the “active ingredient” that makes mindfulness so beneficial to our health, psyche, and overall quality of life.

The practice of intentional, nonjudgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience has been practiced since ancient times in both East and West. Wisdom traditions have for thousands of years recommended mindful practice in a variety of forms to cultivate well-being in an individual’s life. Now science is confirming these benefits. Here, we’ll explore the common elements of these practices and review the research findings which affirm that daily mindfulness practice is good for your health. We’ll then explore a new field called interpersonal neurobiology that integrates a wide range of sciences and other ways of knowing about reality into a common language that illuminates the subjective world of the human mind.

Mindful awareness practices include yoga, tai chi, qigong, centering prayer, chanting, and mindfulness meditation derived from Buddhist tradition. The science of mindfulness could have delved into any of the practices of intentionally focusing on the present moment without judgment, but through the impact of the Buddhist-inspired program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, much of our in-depth research on the impact of mindful awareness on brain and immune function, as well as psychological and interpersonal changes, has emerged from the study of mindfulness meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a microbiology Ph.D. then teaching at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, was inspired in the late 1970s to apply the basic principles of mindfulness meditation to patients in a medical setting. His work developing the MBSR program proved effective in helping alleviate the suffering of chronic and previously debilitating medical conditions such as chronic pain. It also served as fertile ground for a systematic set of research investigations in collaboration with one of the founders of the field of affective neuroscience, Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Kabat-Zinn repeatedly clarifies in his writings and teachings that MBSR, despite its Buddhist roots, is a secular application of mindfulness, which is a practice of carefully focusing attention, not a form of religion. Indeed, each of the mindfulness practices mentioned above share common, secular elements: cultivating an awareness of awareness and paying attention to intention.

Studies show that the ways we intentionally shape our internal focus of attention in mindfulness practice induces a state of brain activation during the practice. With repetition, an intentionally created state can become an enduring trait of the individual as reflected in long-term changes in brain function and structure. This is a fundamental property of neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to experience. Here, the experience is the focus of attention in a particular manner.

A question that is raised regarding the specific features of MBSR is what is the “active ingredient” in its powerful effects. Naturally, the experience of joining with others to reflect on life’s stresses, listen to poetry, and do yoga may each contribute to the program’s scientifically proven effectiveness. But what specific role does meditation itself play in the positive outcomes of the MBSR program? One clue is that those practicing mindfulness meditation during light-treatment for psoriasis revealed four times the speed of healing for the chronic skin condition. And in other studies, long-term improvements were seen and maintained in proportion to the formal reflective meditation time carried out at home in their daily practice.

Further research will be needed to verify the repeated studies affirming that long-term improvements are correlated with the mindfulness practice, and are not just the effect of gathering in a reflective way as a group. Sara Lazar and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital have found that people who have been mindfulness meditators for several decades have structural features in their brains that are proportional to their number of hours of practice. But this finding, too, along with studies of “adepts”—those who have spent often tens of thousands of hours meditating—need to be interpreted with caution as to cause and effect. Are those with differing brain activity and structure simply those who’ve chosen to meditate, or has the meditation actually changed their brains? These questions remain open and in need of further studies.

MBSR has proven an excellent source of insight into these questions because it enables novices to engage in new practices which can then be identified as the variables that induce the positive changes that follow. What are these changes, whatever their specific causes? Studies of MBSR have consistently found several key developments that demonstrate its effectiveness as a health-promoting activity. These may be key to the “science of mindfulness.”

First, a “left-shift” has been noted in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced following MBSR training. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Naturally, such an approach state can be seen as the neural basis for resilience.

Second, the degree of this left-shift is proportional to the improvement seen in immune function. Our mind not only finds resilience, but our body’s ability to fight infection is improved. At the University of California, Los Angeles, David Cresswell and his colleagues have found that MBSR improves immune function even in those with HIV. Improved immune system function may help explain the increase in healing found in the psoriasis treatment studies with mindful reflection during treatment.

Preview our entire March 2010 "Mindful Living" issue

Featuring Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Judith Simmer-Brown, Karen Maezen Miller, Daniel Goleman, and many more — all addressing how to bring mindfulness into all the major aspects of your life.

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