Mindfulness refers to the state of being comprehensively aware of present circumstances by focusing one's consciousness on one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This is achieved, for example, through meditative practices.
Mindfulness-based interventions have been used in the treatment of various neurological disorders and disturbances. These include, and are not limited to, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and chronic pain. Indeed, the benefits of mindfulness-based practice are well documented. On the back of these benefits, the use of mindfulness-based psychotherapies continues to increase.
However, to date, little is known about the actual neural mechanisms associated with mindfulness-based interventions. Furthermore, many ponder the scientific rationale behind incorporating mindfulness-based interventions in psychotherapeutic programs.
To understand these neural mechanisms, scientists are focusing their attention on the relationship between mindfulness and increased gray matter density. This is because there is a positive correlation between increased gray matter concentration and improved brain function. For example, suppose gray matter growth could be stimulated in the areas of the brain that regulate mood, emotions and behavior. Obviously, this would have positive implications for mental health and emotional well-being.
The good news is that the process of increasing gray matter density is not all that dissimilar to that of building muscle in the body. It appears to be a component of brain tissue that responds to “training”, so to speak.
Many studies have proposed that mindfulness-based practice is a type of “training”, you might say, that builds gray matter density and the body of evidence that suggests that this is the case is growing rapidly.
For example, in a recent study, led by Britta K. Hölzel of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, scientists actively measured the pre-post changes in an individual’s gray matter density in association with participation in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR).
The course consisted of eight weekly group meetings lasting two and a half hours each, plus one full day (6.5 hours) during the sixth week of the course, where various mindfulness techniques were taught and practiced. Over the duration of the course, changes in gray matter density in particular parts of the brain were measured using a neuroimaging analysis technique known as voxel-based morphometry.
The analyses confirmed pre-post increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum, as well as regions of the brain stem. These regions of the brain are key players in the cognitive processes that guide learning, memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking. The increase of gray matter in these areas has positive implications for improved mental health and emotional well-being.
Take for example, the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). It sorts and processes a large amount of information from both the external environment as well as from within the body. Our senses are constantly bombarded with new and complex pieces of information, so the role of the TPJ in regulating our mood and behaviour is prominent. It goes without saying, any “reinforcements” in this area of the brain, by way of increased gray matter density and the associated improvement in brain function, would yield positive results. The same could be said for any part of the brain that is associated with maintaining good mental health.
Indeed, if mindfulness practices result in significant increases in gray matter density in these parts, as suggested, then this has significant implications for overall mental health and emotional well-being. Furthermore, there would be a robust scientific basis for incorporating mindfulness-based practices in any therapeutic intervention.
The current state of play is that further research is required to firmly establish the validity of mindfulness techniques in growing gray matter density. However, the goal of studies such as that carried out by Hölzel and her team merely aim to ascertain the mechanics, if you like.
While the exact cause is uncertain, the body of research into the benefits of mindfulness practices on mental and emotional health is vast and, much like gray matter itself during periods of active “training”, continues to grow day by day.
Reference: Hölzel et al., (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011 January 30; 191(1): 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.