The Science of Mindfulness
Three Decades of Research
Over three decades of research in neuroscience, psychology and medicine have proven mindfulness to be a startlingly effective intervention for stress, burn-out and chronic illness, and a powerful catalyst for improved executive, organizational and relationship skills.
Wisdom practices have been the source of well-being and intellectual insight for thousands of years. But Western science is just beginning to understand what monks and spiritual mystics have known for millennia: the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation are physically, mentally and emotionally profound.
6,000+ journaled studies on mindfulness and meditation have identified an array of remarkably positive outcomes in health and wellbeing, cognitive performance and emotional intelligence. Many of these findings not only constitute new science, they represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of human potential and performance.
Many also represent a body of results that can be applied to strengthen business-related competencies and capabilities - and solve human capital and business challenges.
Mindfulness Reduces Stress
Meditation quiets the brain’s default mode network and replaces automatic worry and rumination with non-judgmental concentration. It triggers mechanisms linked to stress regulation, including lowered cortisol, dampened amygdala reactions in response to a variety of cognitive and social threats, and faster recovery to baseline levels, after the stressor has passed.
Many studies confirm the correlation between mindfulness and stress reduction. Recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School reviewed 47 clinical trials involving 3,515 participants. The reviewed studies applied mindful meditation to stress, anxiety, depression, pain, and mental health quality of life, and reported positive effects across the range of these issues.
Proven: Mindful meditation reduces stress, anxiety and the downstream effects of chronic illness.
Mindfulness Improves Physical Health
Neuroscientific and biological studies have demonstrated that mindfulness reduces chronic stress associated with rumination, anxiety and worry, and so dampens its effects on chronic illness, including the primary causes of premature death in the U.S.
Mindfulness produces a range of physical health benefits, including positive impacts on pain management, cardio-pulmonary and vascular disease, diabetes, cancer, digestive disorders, adrenal fatigue, compromised immune systems, sleep disorders, inflammation, and addiction.
Proven: Mindfulness is an effective intervention that lowers stress, as it improves immunity, resistance and physical health.
“Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have gained wide recognition, and their effectiveness for the treatment of difficult and chronic clinical problems has been well demonstrated. Mindfulness improves health and reduces healthcare costs.” (2017 National Health Report, Center for Disease Control)
Neurons, Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity
Neuroscience has disproven the medical dogma that the brain becomes static at the onset of adulthood. We now know that the brain continues to create new neurons (through neurogenesis) and form new neural pathways (through neuroplasticity) throughout the entirety of our lives.
This means that we have much more cognitive control over our bodies, minds, and brains than ever before realized. That fact underlies dozens of studies that show the mind can be trained purposely and effectively through mindfulness and meditation. New neural pathways, representing new learning, new habits, and new skills, can be formed in adulthood.
Proven: The mind is trainable, the brain responds.
Mindfulness Changes the Brain
Mindfulness not only influences neurobiological processes, it actually changes the composition and structure of the adult brain. Through neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, mindfulness physically rewires networks, pathways and firing patterns associated with awareness, attention, emotion, learning and memory.
This physical recomposition includes increased cortical thickness in the left hippocampus, which governs cognition and learning — increased gray matter in the frontal cortex, associated with working memory and executive decision making — and decreased cell volume in the amygdala, which is the source of fear, anxiety and stress.
Proven: The benefits of mindfulness are not an abstract mental construct, they are an empirical, physical reality.
Mindfulness Improves Cognition
Meditation increases gray matter and cortical folding in the neocortex, which is associated with improved thought-processing, decision-making and executive control; and there is considerable research linking mindfulness to increased cognitive capacity, flexibility and overall performance (Smallwood and Schooler, 2015).
Interventional studies of soldiers, students and teachers suggest that mindfulness also increases working memory (Roeser et al 2013) and fluid intelligence, defined as the ability to process novel information and assess patterns and relationships (Gard et al, 2014).
Proven: Mindfulness increases cognitive performance and expands working memory (which in turn, improves critical thinking and complex problem-solving).
Mindfulness Strengthens Attention Control
American workers are increasingly overwhelmed by technology saturation, information overload and conflicting demands. The result is over-tasking, attention deficit and a lack of bandwidth for insight, innovation or critical thinking.
Mindfulness decreases activity in neural networks associated with distraction (Brewer, 2011) and increases activity associated with sustained concentration (Pagnoni, 2012). Numerous other studies show that meditation improves attentional stability, control and efficiency.
Proven: Mindfulness reduces distraction, and improves attention control.
“Mindfulness is associated with positive changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in attentional control, learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” (Holzel, Carmody, Lazar, 2011)
Mindfulness Increases Mental Strength
Professional sports teams, elite athletes and military special forces are all adopting mindfulness as an aid to concentration, endurance and resilience. They are following the science that shows optimal performance is more correlated to a state of mind, than to athletic ability or physical strength.
Multiple studies support the notion that mindfulness is an effective exercise regimen for the brain. It strengthens concentration and focus, improves the ability to handle stress, and helps individuals reframe and deal rationally with setbacks, trauma and loss.
Proven: Mindful meditation is a reliable mental fitness program. It strengthens the ability to cope with stress, and rebound successfully from adversity
Mindfulness Improves Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence has proven to be a more accurate predictor of personal, relationship and career success than IQ. It represents the single most important basket of competencies in the workplace, and is the foundation of effective management and leadership.
Profoundly, mindfulness is at the heart of emotional intelligence. As Daniel Goleman, Ph.D, who literally wrote the book, (NYT bestseller Emotional Intelligence, 1995), describes it: “[Emotional Intelligence] requires the ability to monitor our inner world. Mindfulness is this essential capacity…to see thoughts as they arise, rather than be swept away by them.”
Proven: EQ is critical to leadership, as mindfulness is critical to EQ
“The core of high emotional intelligence is self-awareness. If you don't understand your own motivations and behaviors, it's nearly impossible to develop an understanding of others. A lack of self-awareness can also thwart your ability to think rationally and apply technical capabilities.” (Harvard Business Review, 2016)
Mindfulness Improves Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is the recognition of your emotions and values, how they affect your own thoughts and behaviors, and the impact they have on others. Experts agree that self-awareness is the starting point for effective leadership.
Mindfulness encourages equanimity, and studies show that the process of non-judgmental observation results in more accurate self-appraisal. Research also suggests that mindfulness has a tendency towards ethical values (Ruedy and Schweitzer, 2010), and an increased likelihood that individuals will behave in alignment with them (Brown and Ryan, 2003).
Proven: Mindful meditation creates the clarity for greater self-awareness and alignment with ethical values.
Mindfulness Improves Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to monitor, evaluate and control emotional reactions. Absent mindfulness, much of this regulation takes place beyond our awareness.
Mindfulness reduces automaticity, and systematically dampens signals of threat and arousal from the amygdala, delaying the unconscious auto-shift into fear, anxiety or arousal.
This results in a lower frequency and intensity of negative effect (Chambers et al, 2008), less anxiety (Shapiro et al, 1998), and opportunities for a more adaptive response (Davidson et al, 2003).
Proven: Mindfulness provides the equilibrium for more effective self-regulation.
Mindfulness Increases Empathy
Emotional intelligence has proven to be a more accurate predictor of personal, relationship and career success than IQ. It represents the sEmpathy is the ability to understand, experience or share the emotions and feelings of another being. Compassion is the urge to alleviate that suffering. Both are central to effective management and leadership.ingle most important basket of competencies in the workplace, and is the foundation of effective management and leadership.
In Buddhist tradition, meditation’s effect on health, cognition and memory, though positive, are considered secondary benefits. The central objective of calming the mind and cultivating attention is to attain abiding compassion.
Mindfulness activates empathy and a sense of care for others. (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2014). However, as precursor empathy fades, networks associated with social affiliation (and compassion) light up (Singer, Ricard, 2014). It’s this conversion of empathy to compassion that replaces emotion with a bias for action.
Proven: Mindfulness initially supports empathy, then converts that emotion into compassionate action.
“Regular compassion training can have a beneficial impact on self-reported feelings of positive affect, personal resources, and well-being during everyday life. Interestingly, the beneficial effects of compassion training are not limited to the person who is training, but can also benefit others.” (Journal of Current Biology, Singer, Klimecky, 2014)“
Mindfulness Facilitates Self-Actualization
Self-actualization is the process of self-exploration and self-discovery, in pursuit of meaning and happiness. Mindfulness meditation has been an important spiritual pathway to self-actualization for over 2,500 year.
Mindfulness cultivates awareness in the present moment, by training the mind to observe thoughts and emotions at a distance, rather than reacting to them.
This results in a greater understanding and acceptance of the self. As a result, studies show that experienced meditators are happier, more self-compassionate, and capable of greater well-being than the norm.
Proven: Mindfulness is a path to sustained well-being, a fundamental trait for successful managers and leaders.
Mindfulness Improves Sleep Quality
The American workforce is chronically sleep deprived, with 37% of adults reporting fatigue levels that negatively impact their daily work activities. Sleep-related health care costs for U.S. businesses are estimated at $150 billion a year. Sleep deprivation is a direct cause of workplace stress, absenteeism, accidents and lost productivity.
Meditation calms the anxiety and worry that produce insomnia and interrupted sleep. Researchers at tanford University Medical Center, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and USC, among others, have demonstrated that mindfulness improves time-to-sleep and sleep quality, while reducing sleep-related daytime impairment.
Proven: Mindfulness is an effective intervention for insomnia and other sleep disorders.