Mind over Matter

Mind over Matter

Whether it's to relieve stress, reduce pain or fight addiction, 'mindfulness' meditation is gaining in popularity. Tom Ireland speaks to researchers studying its effect on the brain.

The Biologist Vol 61(4) p12-15

In the last 20 years, 'mindfulness' has gone from a little known Buddhist meditation technique to a clinically proven therapy[1] for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Its popularity is now exploding and an increasing number of websites enable users to learn the technique at home as a way to combat stress and associated problems such as insomnia.

As more researchers investigate the technique, it's showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of other health problems, too, including chronic pain[2], addiction[3] and tinnitus[4]. There is even evidence that mindfulness can help reduce the perceived severity of symptoms in certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome[5], cancer[6] and HIV[7]. Experts in education, the military and even the British Olympic team are now investigating its use to improve performance in schools, combat situations and elite sporting events.

Yet until recently little was known about how a few hours of quiet reflection each week could lead to such an intriguing range of mental and physical effects. Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – permanently.

Neuroscientists are on the verge of understanding how this simple meditation technique really works, and why it seems to lead to such a wide range of physical and mental health benefits.

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