How Understanding the Science of Mindfulness Can Boost Our Well-Being

The research is finally catching up with what countless others have known for millennia: what you do with your mind matters.

Fizkes/ Shutterstock
Fizkes/ Shutterstock

One thing I have discovered over the years delivering keynotes and training on mindfulness around the world, is that some people want to make sure someone in a white lab coat has confirmed the validity of mindfulness before they will try it. It’s not that they are singling out mindfulness; whether it is a specific diet plan, an exercise regime, or a mindfulness practice, some people just want to know the science before they will make the investment in time and effort. I can understand that position in today’s busy world with marketers constantly trying to get you to do the latest amazing thing that is going to solve all your problems. Also, I personally love science and enjoy reading the latest studies on a number of topics, but what’s more compelling to me regarding the decision to add a new practice to my life is whether or not it has withstood the test of time. Mindfulness, across all the contemplative traditions that have used it, certainly meets that criterion. Additionally, having sat through statistics classes at Harvard and seeing how easily they can be manipulated, learning about practices such as “p-hacking,” used to manipulate research findings, and reading about the replication crisis in social science and psychology research, I never automatically take research at face value these days. I’m inclined to try things myself and see if they work for me. Trust but verify.

There have been entire books diving deep into the tens of thousands of scientific research studies on mindfulness written by mindfulness researchers for other mindfulness researchers. This is not that book and I am not a scientist. We are just going to dip our toe into the science. I offer this brief look at some of the research findings regarding mindfulness but strongly suggest that the most important factor you should weigh is the impact of a consistent mindfulness practice on your life and those around you. There have been millions of people who have come before us on a mindfulness journey, and most came well before modern scientists ever cared about what it did to the brain. In my opinion, the science is finally catching up with what countless others have known for millennia: what you do with your mind matters. What I will try to do in the pages that follow is share with you, in a general way, with as little technical jargon as possible, some of the research I found compelling as well as research that aligns with my personal experience with mindfulness. I will also share a couple recommendations of books to consider reading if you want to take a deeper dive into the science.

Mindfulness Changes the Brain

I hate to burst the bubble here but this has to be done. There are dozens if not hundreds of news articles, magazine covers, podcasts and mindfulness teachers that effusively tout the fact that mindfulness changes the brain as if this is the crucial scientific finding that should convince you to start a mindfulness practice immediately. They are not wrong in their conviction that mindfulness changes the brain; it most certainly does. What they fail to tell you or what they do not know themselves is that pretty much everything changes the brain. Begin learning to play the piano and the brain changes. Start a new workout and the brain changes. Read a book and the brain changes. (Yes, your brain has changed because you are reading this book. You’re welcome.) Notice there is a loose tile on the bathroom floor you’ve been using on a near daily basis for the last 10 years and, even then, the brain changes. Your brain changes all the time, and this ability of your brain to change is called neuroplasticity. What’s special about mindfulness is that it changes the brain in ways that seem to correlate with changes in behavior, perception, and experience that have benefits not only for the mindfulness practitioner but also for those around them. Let’s look at some of the changes uncovered by putting meditators and non-meditators into brain scanners before, during, and after mindfulness training.

Excerpted from Mindfulness without the Bells and Beads: Unlocking Exceptional Performance, Leadership, and Well-being for Working Professionals, Wiley, available April 20, 2021.

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