October 2, 2015

Science and mindfulness: Are they compatible?

Publications about mindfulness in academic journals soared from three in 1980 to 22 in 2000, then leaped to 535 in 2014, according to a graph from David S. Black and the American Mindfulness Research Association.

The November 2014 Scientific American cover story by Richard Davidson and others noted that studies show mindfulness may reduce anxiety and depression, decrease psychological stress and physical reactions to stress, improve sleep patterns, reduce the impact of pain and even slow processes of cellular aging. Studies also show mindfulness altering the brain’s physical structure in a positive way, fitting into the idea of “neuroplasticity”    the alteration of the adult brain by experience.

A 2011 “Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging” article by B.K. Holzel and others found that eight weeks of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program were associated with increased gray matter in the left hippocampus and other brain areas. The hippocampus “contributes to the regulation of emotion,” said the paper. In the study, 16 participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day in their homework of body scan, sitting meditation or yoga.

In other words, the study showed a positive structural change in the brain after eight weeks of mindfulness at an average of 27 minutes a day.

Reduced burnout also is a demonstrated benefit.


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“I have found a trend that these (mindfulness-based) interventions are having a significant effect on reducing that burnout,” said Lauren Menger, a Ph.D. candidate in occupational health psychology at Colorado State University. Menger is reviewing scientific papers on workplace mindfulness written since 2003.

Menger also cited one particular study by Mario Virgili that looked at 19 intervention studies with 1,139 participants who used MBSR or similar programs. Virgili concluded, “Overall, these findings support the use of MBIs (mindfulness-based interventions) in organizational settings for the reduction of psychological distress.”

Virgili’s paper also stated that there was “little evidence to suggest that MBIs are more effective than other types of occupational stress-management interventions, such as relaxation training and yoga, for reducing psychological distress in working adults.”

That would seem to suggest that mindfulness is just one of a number of tools that are roughly the same in addressing distress in working adults.

But Menger said in an email, “From what I can tell, there have been very few studies that pit mindfulness programs against other stress-management interventions (in fact, I think Virgili only includes one in his review). So, what he says is technically true, but the fact of the matter is that this really hasn’t been looked at enough to be able to say.”

In response to Virgili’s statement, Susan Skjei, director of the Authentic Leadership Center at Boulder-based Naropa University, said mindfulness extends far beyond stress management.

“Stress management is certainly one benefit of meditation, and it makes sense to me that it would compare with yoga and relaxation training for that purpose,” she said in an email. “However, one reason it (mindfulness) is very helpful in the workplace is because it also improves attention, problem solving and creativity and fosters self-awareness of cognitive and emotional functioning in ways that go beyond other methods.”

Skjei cited mindfulness studies in various areas: increased immunity; increased attention; less emotional reactivity; improved visu-spatial processing, working memory and executive function; increased longevity: less emotional exhaustion and greater job satisfaction.

Christina Congleton, owner and coach at Boulder-based Axon Leadership, also addressed the Virgili statement.

“In my understanding, mindfulness is an element of many different interventions,” she said in an email. 

Publications about mindfulness in academic journals soared from three in 1980 to 22 in 2000, then leaped to 535 in 2014, according to a graph from David S. Black and the American Mindfulness Research Association.

The November 2014 Scientific American cover story by Richard Davidson and others noted that studies show mindfulness may reduce anxiety and depression, decrease psychological stress and physical reactions to stress, improve sleep patterns, reduce the impact of pain and even slow processes of cellular aging. Studies also show mindfulness altering the brain’s physical structure in a positive way, fitting into the…

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