In part 1, we focused on the studies and experiments revolving around the meditative practice of focused attention, where the practitioner focused all of their attention on the inhale and exhale of the breath. It was found that this type of meditation increased the brain’s ability to maintain focus, and also lessened the amount of effort and energy needed to bring the mind back from being distracted to a focused state.
This article will focus on the information found from studying a different type of meditative practice, sometimes called “stream of thought” meditation, and most commonly known in the Buddhist community as mindfulness meditation.
In this practice, one allows themselves to be keenly aware of everything that is happening in the moment, from external stimuli, to emotional activity, to bodily sensations. No greater attention is given to one particular thing, and the method is to give everything an equal amount of non-judgmental awareness, without investing any attachment or emotional indulgence into anything.
Speed of Perception
One experiment, documented in the November 2014 edition of Scientific American, revolved around a phenomenon known as attentional blink. In the experiment, subjects were asked to identify 2 numbers that rapidly flashed on a screen, amidst a series of letters. Most commonly, if the second number flashes on the screen about 300 milliseconds after the first number, the subjects are unable to see it. This “attentional blink” is caused by the speed and energy the brain takes to identify the first number and process it. As the second number is flashing on the screen, the brain is still processing it’s identification of the first number.
The researchers’ hypothesis was that mindfulness meditation could be used in training the brain to take less time to process seeing the first number, as the practice of nonreactive awareness could lessen the amount of processing necessary in identifying it.
Sure enough, after 3 months of intensive mindfulness training, the meditators were able to consistently perceive both numbers more frequently than the control group. This performance was also corroborated with the recording of less frequent activity of the P3B brainwave, which is used to measure where attention is allocated in the brain. The result of this study showed that mindfulness meditation could allow the brain to optimize its attention, allowing it to be aware of a more broad spectrum, rather than having tunnel vision in focusing all its resources on one thing at any given moment.
Another interesting study revolved around physical pain, showing that allowing one’s attention to be given to unpleasant physical sensation (ie: pain) could actually reduce negative emotional responses to it, and enable one to move beyond it to find peace.
In one group of experienced meditators, a particular type of mindfulness meditation known as open presence was used as a physically painful stimuli was introduced. In this experiment it was found that the meditation did not decrease the intensity of the pain, but it DID decrease how much it bothered the participant.
One interesting find in this study was that, compared to novices, expert meditators’ brain activity in anxiety-related areas (such as the amygdala and the insular cortex) was significantly lower in the time period preceding the introduction of the painful stimulus. It was also found that these experienced meditators’ brains became much more quickly accustomed to the stimulus in the pain-related areas than the less experienced group. In other words, the pain did not arouse as much anxiety for the experienced meditators, and they got used to it much more quickly.
Psychological, Emotional, and Physical Well-Being
Several studies have found this type of meditation can also greatly improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even improve sleep patterns. By openly monitoring thoughts and feelings as they arise, and giving them full awareness, one is able to put themselves more in a position where they can manage and control these feelings and thoughts, giving them a greater amount of power and more of a choice as to how much energy to invest in them.
One particular study on this subject, by clinical psychologists John Teasdale (University of Cambridge) and Zindel Segal (University of Toronto) showed that patients who had experienced at least three episodes of depression could reduce their chances of relapse by nearly 40% in the following year by undergoing six months of mindfulness practice, coupled with cognitive therapy. More recently, Segal was also able to demonstrate that this training showed superior results in comparison to both a placebo, and to standard antidepressant therapy.
Perhaps mindfulness meditation shows some of the most promising results, for all areas of life, from perceptual capability, to coping skills and management of physical, mental, and emotional pain.
It is my opinion that the findings we have from current research are just the tip of the iceberg, and there is much more for us to discover about this ancient practice!
Stay tuned for part 3 of this article series, where we will explore the research performed on the Buddhist compassion and loving kindness meditation.
Love and Peace,