In 1992, the Dalai Lama invited prominent neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., to Dharamsala, India, to learn about mindfulness meditation. Over the next two decades, Davidson led groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin examining the meditating brains of monks. Through the use of electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that there was significantly increased activity in the monks’ prefrontal cortex both during and after meditation. These findings have led to an enormous body of research into the effects and benefits of mindfulness on the brain and body, including using it for everything from substance-abuse treatment to academic engagement.
For those unfamiliar with the functions of the prefrontal cortex, it’s our inner CEO, responsible for high-level problem solving, organized thinking, logical reasoning and short-term memory. It doesn’t fully develop until we are around 24 years old, and it deteriorates as we age. The effects of meditation on the brain are numerous, and thankfully research on mindfulness is now pervasive. But what is mindfulness?
Although the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” are often used synonymously, the two are not interchangeable. Meditation refers to a multitude of pointed concentration techniques that involve imagery (imagining your breath moving up and down a colorful spine); word repetition/mantra (repeating the phrase “I am loved” with each breath); feelings (sending loving compassion to all beings everywhere); or movements (yoga postures linked with breath). Mindfulness is also a form of meditation; however, it isn’t always an eyes-closed-sitting practice. Mindfulness is a sustained practice of awareness of your physical body, your emotional landscape and the world around you as it is now, recognizing this is ever-changing. As prominent Buddhist and mindfulness meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh famously said, “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”
As we continue to learn about the brain-body connection, mindfulness-based interventions provide significant benefits to aging. Researchers in Switzerland this spring found older adults who practiced mindfulness meditation had higher scores on immune function, brain plasticity and overall quality of life. They also observed increased activity in their parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system) that led to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Additional research has also shown that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) protect our health as we age; they can improve sleep quality by combating circadian rhythm disruption, decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety due to loneliness, and increase feelings of empathy and forgiveness that we sometimes lose with the pain of life.
Thanks to the Dalai Lama, Richardson, more than 100 Buddhist monks and thousands of researchers, the way we understand, respect and integrate mindfulness meditation into Western medical practice has shifted dramatically in the past 30 years. Imagine what other insights we might gain in the next 30!
A nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner, Katie Capano has over 16 years of experience in integrative medicine. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1999, and is a student of Tibetan Buddhist scholars Tias Little, Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron. She is passionate about healthcare justice and believes all people have the right to high quality healthcare regardless of their ability to pay. Capano currently works as a bilingual midwife for Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.