Want to stay focused, on top of your game and not be impacted by stress, anxiety or overwhelm?
Want to experience this even when there are multiple priorities piling up on your to-do list? And if so, would you invest 20 minutes of your time each day to help make this happen?
Mindfulness meditation can improve how you operate in life, reduce the rate at which your brain ages, and completely change how you feel and respond to the world.
A study worth paying attention to
I like reading scientific publications. It’s what I do in my daily work, and it’s what I do when I want to check answers to questions that crop up in my personal life too.
One article I read recently explored the impact of mindfulness meditation on different regions and neural networks of the brain. Published a few years back in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, this cornerstone article consolidated information from 180 scientific publications.
180 publications is a lot by any standards. 50 would already be considered quite a thorough systematic review, so you can see that this study has some weight behind it. This is further evidenced by the fact its been cited by others over 970 times.
The focus of this study? The actual impact of mindfulness on the brain, as evidenced by neuroimaging, among other things.
This particular study provides a comprehensive overview of what happens to the brain during meditation, which regions are affected and what benefits are experienced when those brain regions are affected. 1
From attention through to emotional regulation and age related decline, it turns out that there is sufficient evidence to get excited about the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
1. Mindfulness meditation blocks out unnecessary noise and improves focus and attention
When it comes to the functional and structural impact that mindfulness meditation has on the brain, the area of the brain most consistently affected is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
This area of the brain enables executive attention and control. In other words, is what helps you to stay focused on the task at hand when you have multiple thoughts, stimuli or priorities all competing for your attention.
Mindfulness meditation helps you to follow the wise words of Stephen Covey:
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
The three key areas of attention
There are three key areas of attention, all of which have been shown to be positively impacted through mindfulness meditation.
Interestingly, they are all affected at different times on your mindfulness meditation journey.
Alerting is your brain’s readiness to receive and respond to information. Mindfulness meditation, it’s been shown, leads to increased focus. This in turn lets you receive and respond to information more effectively.
Changes in alerting is not something that happens in the short term (short term is detailed as one week in the study). Changes are generally only seen after you’ve been meditating for months, or even years.
Orienting is the selection of specific information from multiple stimuli. Put simply, orienting is your brain’s ability to direct your attention to the most useful pieces of information when you’re presented with multiple options.
The research indicates that by adopting a mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll increase your ability to remain alert for longer. By remaining alert, you’re better able to get straight to the most useful piece of information.
Improvements in orienting happen after three months of mindfulness training, according to the study.
Conflict monitoring (executive attention)
Conflict monitoring is your brains attempt at resolving stress when it’s under an increased cognitive load. It’s what you’ll recognise as the ability to calm the mind and maintain focus in times of overwhelm.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase your ability to stay focused and not be distracted by multiple stimuli.
The exciting news is that the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on enhanced conflict monitoring (executive attention) happens quickly: it’s been demonstrated that changes occur in as little as five days when meditating for only 20 minutes per day.
2. Mindfulness meditation reduces age related decline in some regions of the brain
According to the study, regions of grey matter in the brain, such as the putamen, are less affected from age related decline.
The putamen, which plays a role in disengaging irrelevant information, is a key brain structure that helps to maintain focus. Mindfulness meditation, says the study, can help the putamen to perform better.
Another area where mindfulness helps reduce the age related decline is in sustained attention performance, which is being able to focus on the same thing for a long time. Sustained attention is what’s required for deep work.
How could this benefit you?
Mindfulness meditation can help to prevent you being distracted by multiple stimuli (think social media or increased work load), help you stay focused for longer and give you an edge over your non-meditating friends (or competitors).
3. Mindfulness meditation enhances emotional regulation and reduces stress
The way we respond to emotions, anxiety, stress and unpleasant situations is intrinsically related to our emotional regulation.
The study states that the fronto-limbic networks benefit from mindfulness meditation. Positive results from this study include improved strategies and controls regarding which emotions arise, when they arise, how long they occur for and how these emotions are experienced and expressed.
By practising mindfulness meditation, the research suggests a lowered intensity and frequency of negative impacts from external factors and emotions, in addition to improved positive mood states.
By strengthening the prefrontal cognitive control mechanisms through mindfulness meditation and down regulating the activity in brain regions known to affect processing (such as the amygdala), we are less likely to experience emotional highjacking.
How could this benefit you?
Have you ever had a friend, boss or colleague say something or behave in a particular way that played on your mind for hours, days or even weeks later? You’re out in the garden watering the plants and just can’t stop thinking about that situation. The frustration keeps building as the thoughts ruminate and bounce around in your mind.
Mindfulness helps with that, says the study.
A frequently reported finding is that mindfulness practise results in a reduced activation of the amygdala in response to emotional stimuli during both mindful and resting states.
Remarkably, these results have been reported for meditation beginners and less frequently detected in experienced meditators, so start meditating now.
The short version
According to this cornerstone study, which examined 180 scientific publications in a meta-analysis, mindfulness meditation can help you to:
- Block out unnecessary noise and improve focus and attention
- Reduce age related decline in some regions of the brain
- Enhance emotional regulation and reduce stress
Through the simple practice of mindfulness meditation you can improve how you operate in life, the rate at which your brain ages, and how you feel and respond to the world.
Have you experienced any of these benefits from your personal practice? Can you share a story of a time when these benefits would have helped a situation have a more productive or positive outcome? Comment below. We’d love to hear your stories and share them with the community.
References and other resources
- Tang YY, Hölzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(4):213-225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916