How often have you looked at slides down the microscope and your thoughts have been miles away? Have you ever been sitting at the bench pipetting and preparing a PCR and wondered if you had really added your forward primer to all your samples (I’ll put my hand up to this one!)? Or spent time needlessly worrying about a presentation?

Our minds can wander all the time, but being on “automatic pilot” can lead to mistakes and the possibility that you may miss vital clues to your research questions. This is where the technique of mindfulness may help you in the lab and beyond. Using mindfulness can help us to pay greater attention to our tasks in the lab and prevent our thoughts from heading off in the direction of the worst case scenario. It has also been shown to help us in the processing of information and the solving of complex problems as our minds get older. In addition, the lab can be a stressful environment in which to work, but mindfulness has been demonstrated to reduce anxiety and stress and may help us keep things in perspective.

Mindfulness is a concept and technique which you may have come across via various media streams with people such as Ruby Wax extoling its virtues. But what is mindfulness and are there quantifiable benefits to our brains?

Ancient and contemporary origins

Although mindfulness may seem like one of the latest self-help buzzwords, it’s actually an ancient technique. The roots of mindfulness are firmly embedded in Buddhist teaching and philosophy, and mindfulness is part of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Buddhism itself originated around 2,500 years ago.

However, contemporary mindfulness was founded by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn was a student of yoga and Zen Buddhism. Through his studies, he integrated these practices with science. In 1979, he established the stress reduction clinic, and this developed into the eight week structured Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course that is taught worldwide. 1

Although contemporary mindfulness is based upon the Buddhist practice of meditation, it extracts the essence of a meditative state without being linked to any particular Buddhist beliefs or traditions.

Kabat-Zinn defines contemporary mindfulness as:

“paying attention in a particular way- on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”.

It sounds like a fairly simple concept, and it can be. However, like most things, it does require practice, especially when starting out. Mindfulness thinking is not the usual way in which our brains think and function.

The science of meditation and mindfulness

Scientific research into the effects of mindfulness is a rapidly expanding field. A quick PubMed search will bring up around 2800 papers including the word ‘mindfulness’. Within this total are 155 research papers that have examined the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation.

Included in this total are papers that have highlighted the following benefits of meditation and mindfulness:

  • Higher levels of cortical folding (‘gyrification’) which may allow for faster information processing in the brain 2
  • Changes in brain metabolites which are associated with depression and anxiety 3
  • Decreased brain activity in the “Default-Mode Network” that is involved in processes ranging from anxiety and lapses in attention to attentional to clinical disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease 4

Grey matter

Within the brain, grey matter is the part that contains most of our neurons and is associated with sensory perception and muscle control. The research group headed by Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been studying the effects of meditation and mindfulness on grey matter density.5

In a study published in 2005, Lazar and colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brain structures of 20 individuals who were experienced in meditation versus a control group of 15 people who had no such experience or interests.6 The results from the study found that those people who meditated had increased amounts of grey matter in the auditory and sensory regions of their brains along with more grey matter in the frontal cortex, which is the region associated with decision making and memory. 6

Our frontal cortex begins to shrink when we get older, which means that we can have problems remembering things and making quick or complex decisions. However, in this study, Lazar found that the average cortical thickness of the 40 to 50 year old meditators was similar to the average thickness of the 20 to 30 year olds in the meditation and the control groups.6

Results in just eight weeks

The individuals in the 2005 study had between two and 16 years’ experience with meditation and perhaps they had more grey matter to begin with.

Lazar examined this possibility in a study published in 2011.7 In this follow up study, they took a group of 16 people who had no previous experience with meditation or mindfulness and examined their brains, again using MRI, before and after an 8 week mindfulness course. They compared the results to a control group of 17 individuals.

After only 8 weeks, they found significant differences in brain volume between the mindfulness participants and the people in the control group.

They found thickening in the following four regions of the brain:

  1. The posterior singulate that is associated with self-relevance and the wandering of our minds.
  2. The left hippocampus that supports memory, learning, and the regulation of emotions.
  3. The temporoparetial junction that is involved in putting things into perspective as well as compassion and empathy.
  4. The Pons, an area of the brain stem, that produces neurotransmitters.

One area of the brain that got smaller in the mindfulness participants was the amygdala. This is the so-called ‘fight of flight’ part of the brain, which is associated with anxiety, stress and fear.

Research into mindfulness continues to grow at an exponential rate. Whilst there are some studies that find no benefits, the overall message from the field of neuroscience is that this technique can produce measurable changes to our brains and subsequent benefits to the way we act and think.