The Science of Mindfulness:
history, case studies and more...
You may have heard of mindfulness or read some of the recent media coverage about it, but do you know why or how it's been proven to have such a profound and positive impact on our mental wellbeing?
A plethora of scientific research is now available on mindfulness. These include randomised control trials and neuroscientific studies and the results are in: Scholarly research finds that mindfulness practice decreases stress and anxiety, increases attention, improves interpersonal relationships, strengthens compassion, and confers a host of other benefits.
Some of the benefits found from scientific studies are listed below:
Compassion & prosocial behaviours
A number of studies have shown that the awareness and acceptance of one’s emotions, which is a particular function of emotion regulation techniques such as mindfulness meditationis linked to heightened compassion 6 & prosocial behaviours 7
Mindfulness & The Brain
Until recently, it was thought that the structure and function of the brain were fixed from early childhood. However recent scientific research shows that the brain is in fact ‘neuroplastic 5’, in other words, it changes throughout our lives.
Recent landmark studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can ‘rewire’ the brain to make neural pathways underlying some key abilities and mechanisms more efficient. The cumulative evidence from adult participants shows that mindfulness meditation can increase the density and complexity of connections in areas associated with beneficial outcomes such as improvements in attention, emotional awareness, self-awareness, introspection, kindness, and compassion.
Specifically, mindfulness meditation affects the brain in the following ways:
The Prefrontal Cortex is most associated with maturity, including regulating emotions and behaviours and making wise decisions. This part of the brain is more activated and developed following mindfulness training
The Amygdala is activated when detecting and reacting to emotions including difficult or strong emotions such as fear. This part of the brain is also associated with stress & anxiety. Following sessions of mindfulness training, this part of the brain may be less activated
The Hippocampus is critical to learning and memory and helps regulate the amygdala. The hippocampus is more activated during meditation.
The Happiest Man known to science
In one of the largest studies of its kind to date, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin attached 256 brain sensors to long term meditation practitioner Mattieu Ricard.The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard's brain produced a level of gamma waves - those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory - 'never reported before in the neuroscience literature'.
The scans also showed excessive activity in his brain's left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, giving him 'an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity.' They nicknamed Mattieu Ricard ‘the happiest man known to science’
And there's much much more...
The cognitive benefits of mindfulness have now been confirmed by thousands of scientific studies including studies produced by such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. Visit our Case Study section for more examples.
When teachers & students practice mindfulness, studies have shown that there are improvements to four psychological core mechanisms: attention, metacognition (standing back from our thought processes) and self-regulation (managing our minds & emotions).
All these mechanisms are foundational to the quality of our lives, including the ability of students to learn and flourish, and teachers to be fulfilled and effective. Studies find that young people benefit from learning mindfulness particularly in terms of improved cognitive outcomes, social-emotional skills, and well being. Specifically research finds that young people who practice mindfulness can develop:
Social & emotional skills
Improved behaviour in schools
Attention & focus
Physical health & wellbeing
reduction and prevention of depression
stress and anxiet
The Benefits for Teachers
Research shows that stressed teachers impact students’ stress levels and student stress impacts learning outcomes. Students learn better in a climate that is more emotionally positive. Studies have demonstrated a link between positive emotional classroom environments and academic achievement.
When teachers learn mindfulness, they not only reap personal benefits such as reduced stress and burnout but their schools do as well. In randomized controlled trials, teachers who learned mindfulness experienced:
Reduced stress and burnout
Improved physical health & wellbeing
Greater efficacy in doing their jobs
Better classroom organization
More emotionally supportive classrooms
1. Concentration & memory
Schöne, B., Gruber, T., Graetz, S. et al. Mindful breath awareness meditation facilitates efficiency gains in brain networks: A steady-state visually evoked potentials study. Sci Rep 8, 13687 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-32046-5
2. Emotion regulation
Hill, C. L. M., & Updegraff, J. A. (2012). Mindfulness and its relationship to emotional regulation. Emotion, 12(1), 81–90. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026355
3. Emotion regulation
Meditation on Emotion Regulation, Cognition and Social Skills. European Scientific Journal, ESJ, 14(14), 18.
5. Emotion processing https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.01074/full
Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2125–2127.
7. Prosocial behaviours
Berry DR, Hoerr JP, Cesko S, et al. Does Mindfulness Training Without Explicit Ethics-Based Instruction Promote Prosocial Behaviors? A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2020;46(8):1247-1269.
8. Anxiety Stress & Mindfulness
Saul, A., & Fish, M. (2019). Anxiety and College Students: The Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Meditation. Recreation, Parks, and Tourism in Public Health, 3, 139-154. doi:10.2979/rptph.3.1.09
9. Mindfulness & the Neuroplastic brain
Lawtoo, N. (2016). Conrad's Shadow: Catastrophe, Mimesis, Theory. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. Retrieved April 20, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/j.ctt1d9npcd
Guillaume Herbet, Maxime Maheu, Emanuele Costi, Gilles Lafargue, Hugues Duffau, Mapping neuroplastic potential in brain-damaged patients, Brain, Volume 139, Issue 3, March 2016, Pages 829–844, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awv394
11. Mindfulness & the brain
12. Matthieu Ricard scans
13. Mindfulness in education
Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Lawlor, M.S. The Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Education Program on Pre- and Early Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social and Emotional Competence. Mindfulness 1, 137–151 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-010-0011-8
14. Mindfulness & the classroom
Meyer, L., Eklund, K. The Impact of a Mindfulness Intervention on Elementary Classroom Climate and Student and Teacher Mindfulness: a Pilot Study. Mindfulness 11, 991–1005 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01317-6