During the last several years, mindfulness has become a popular practice when people become learn what they sense and feel without external judgments. This meditation comprises breathing techniques, repeating sounds, or constructing mental images (Lardone et al., 2018). In most cases, people comprehend mindfulness meditation as full conscious awareness for exploring pain acceptance and achieving emotional balance. In recent empirical studies, mindfulness is proved to be effective for clinical health conditions and managing mood disturbances, stress, depression, and anxiety (Grossman et al., 2004; Howarth et al., 2019).
In addition, similar interventions can be applied to lower blood pressure and improve sleep quality. In this paper, attention will be paid to the impact mindfulness could have on brain functions and cognitive skills. Positive changes in cognition and brain work are observed in different areas, including right and left hippocampus, anterior or posterior cingulate, pons, and amygdala (Hölzel et al., 2011; Lardone et al., 2018; Magan et al., 2019). The analysis of empirical studies about mindfulness and its impact on the brain and cognition will be developed in this paper to define the strengths and weaknesses of recent findings in the field.
Modern meditators admit a variety of positive effects of their practice on their lives and overall well-being. It is known that the first meditation techniques came from Buddhist philosophy many centuries ago, but officially, Kabat-Zinn was the founder of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program in current psychology (Davidson et al., 2003; Shapero et al., 2018). It was an eight-week course that included 2-2.5 hour classes with a one-day retreat to manage pain. People were offered different methods like sitting meditation, mindful movement, and body scanning in groups and specific audio-recorded instructions and tasks to be completed at home (Shapero et al., 2018).
The offered techniques were constantly improved by acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy to be applied in managing various mental health disorders like depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and substance use problems. Mindfulness interventions showed changes in human behaviours, and researchers were interested in how mindfulness could help patients with cognitive deficits and poor brain functioning. During the last twenty years, empirical studies were developed in different participant groups to demonstrate how effective mindfulness medication for brain and cognitive improvements.
Cognitive Abilities and Mindfulness
The development of cognitive functions is a vital element of human growth as these brain-based skills are necessary for data analysis, reasoning, decision-making, and knowledge acquisition. If an individual faces difficulties in learning or memorising things, healthcare workers have to assess cognitive skills and offer an appropriate treatment plan. According to Zeidan et al. (2010), meditation and brief mental training results in cognitive performance improvement. The main idea of a mindfulness intervention is to instruct people how to relax with their eyes closed and focus on breathing at the tip of a nose to the abdomen and back (Zeidan et al., 2010).
Short-term meditators admit enhanced attention and self-regulation due to reduced amygdala reactivity in response to positive images (Kral et al., 2018). The evaluation of cognitive functions in brief practices is developed on the results of simple cognitive tasks like verbal fluency or symbol digit modalities tests (Zeidan et al., 2010). Long-term meditation is characterised by different benefits in cognitive processes and the promotion of emotional balance and focused attention (Fabio & Towely, 2017). There are many empirical studies that prove the connection between cognition and mindfulness.
The human brain consists of a number of significant elements that control body functions and interpret information. Long-term memory is a complex system that stores experiences and information for long periods in two ways: implicitly (no need to recall constantly) and explicitly (consciously thinking). It is directly related to the work of the hippocampus, a small brain formation responsible for consolidation and reconsolidation of memories in the limbic system and the quality of learning and memory processes (Hölzel et al., 2011; Kragel et al., 2020; Shapero et al., 2018). In the brain, there are different neural oscillations that signify specific cognitive and behavioural changes due to learning and memory changes. The theta rhythm is one of such fluctuations related to the right hippocampus activation (Kragel et al., 2020).
Mindfulness meditation is a non-pharmacological intervention that provokes increases in the theta power and alteration in the hippocampus (Lardone et al., 2018; Davidson et al., 2003). As a result, long-term memory is constantly trained and improved by means of mindfulness practices.
Almost the same functions of the hippocampus can be used to explain the impact of mindfulness meditation on working memory that helps to manipulate information. This memory type is also called short-term memory with the only difference – a possibility to discard it as soon as it is of no use or transfer it to long-term memory. Meditation increases the hippocampus volume and protects against proactive interference (when past information retains new information) (Greenberg et al., 2019).
Zeidan et al. (2010) use the symbol digit modalities test to measure working memory and prove that meditators retrieve information and deal with the tasks that need rapid stimulus processing. People need to know how to train their working memory without using medications, and mindfulness meditation promotes beneficial changes in the brain, particularly in working memory, through emotional regulation, problem-solving, and learning.
Attention is another cognitive process that may be significantly improved through mindfulness meditation. Being closely related to memory, attention helps to process information in relation to a specific environment. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as a practice of paying attention in a particular way, meaning non-judgmentally and purposefully (as cited in Shapero et al., 2018). It means that attention remains a vital component of meditation that has to be self-regulated. Long-term and short-term meditation activities “promote reductions in reflexive, automatic processing of irrelevant information,” which sustains attention (Zeidan et al., 2010, p. 603).
People who focus on mindfulness learn how to control their attention, observe things around, and focus on something. The human mind wanders and becomes distracted by a variety of internal and external factors, and meditation allows bringing all thoughts together and understanding how to deal with emotions and impulses. Fabio and Towey (2017) recommend focused attention meditation and open-monitoring meditation to maintain and redirect focus gradually. These programs aim at reducing distractions and reach reflexive awareness (Fabio & Towey, 2017). In many studies, participants prove improvements in their attention and focus after short- and long-term meditation programs.
Taking into consideration a separate impact of mindfulness on such cognitive processes as working or technical memories and attention, one should admit the role of meditation in executive functioning in general. Executive functions comprise such skills as attention, working memory, and introspection or self-control (Fox et al., 2014). When an individual demonstrates poor emotional control, trouble listening, socially inappropriate behaviours, and memory concerns, executive dysfunction is observed. People need to address a professional and learn how to handle their emotions and take control.
MBSR programs were tested by Gard et al. (2014) and Zeidan et al. (2010) to show how executive function can be improved. Meditators are free to choose between different approaches, including Kirtan Kriya yoga (a combination of breathing techniques, finger movements, mantra, and visualisation), Vihangam yoga (spiritual exercises), or MBSR (Gard et al., 2014). Transcendental meditation also has positive outcomes of executive function when people sit in chairs, close and open their eyes, and take deep breaths to relax (Gard et al., 2014). Participants get enough time to analyse and learn from their mistakes and coordinate activities.
Meditation Impact on Brain Function
Brain functions have to be balanced to control human cognitive abilities. If the brain fails to work properly, a person faces a variety of problems, including breathing, walking, or eating. It is important to take the steps and promote good brain functioning in meditators. Maga et al. (2019) inform that meditation is associated with high 18fluorodeoxyglucose uptake activities in the pre-frontal cortex and sub-cortical cortex like the amygdala.
Shapero et al. (2018) specify that decreased density in grey matter, amygdala, is explained by long-term mindfulness meditation activities. This area of the brain is responsible for problem-solving, analysing, and emotions. Meditation provokes changes in different areas of the brain like frontolimbic and default mode networks (Kozasa et al., 2018). The default mode network activates at rest and is associated with mind-wandering and self-evaluation (Kral et al., 2019). Other changes include better preservation of brain functioning (older meditators have more grey matter volumes), prediction of the development of dementia and anxiety, and strengthening self-control regions to resist addiction (Fox et al., 2014; Gard et al., 2014; Grossman et al., 2004). Meditation initiates new activities and guides the brain to function properly.
The impact of mindfulness meditation on human health and brain activities has been frequently discussed in many studied published within the last twenty years. Researchers developed their projects in clinical settings, laboratories, and under individual conditions to find the answers to their questions and explain the relationships between meditation and human physiology. In most cases, investigations were limited by the chosen sample sizes and the types of interventions.
For example, Davidson et al. (2003), Kral et al. (2018), and Greenberg et al. (2019) consider a small number of subjects in their works as the main shortage that prevented achieving effective results. Such studies are characterised by the inability to reach significance. The sample size is not the only problematic area in mindfulness research, and many authors are careful in explaining their findings and clarifying what further improvements were possible. For example, Davidson et al. (2003), Fabio and Towely (2017), Kral et al. (2019), and Magan et al. (2019) recommend focusing on interventions and differentiate the outcomes of long-term and short-term interventions. Methodological weaknesses are not always easy to avoid, and it is a responsibility of authors to share future improvements.
Regarding the nature of the studies, the lack of control groups was evident, and it was not always possible to compare the effects of mindfulness meditation. Howarth et al. (2019) work in a laboratory setting, Shapero et al. (2018) choose real-life settings, and Magan et al. 2019) investigate the brain changes in a clinical setting. In some studies, control groups are well-defined, including their age, gender, and experience differences.
Some authors do not address the changes in control and experiment groups but develop systematic and meta-reviews to analyse what has already been discovered. In terms of the chosen topic, it is more credible and effective to use the results of the comparison between study groups. Still, the choice of experienced meditators becomes a problem because it is hard to notice changes. Kozasa et al. (2018) cannot find enough female subjects, and Lardone et al. (2018) should work with different forms of meditation, which determines the results. Therefore, each study has certain strengths and limitations in regard to the goals and available resources, and the success of a project is defined by the possibility of researchers to solve problems.
In this critical evaluation, the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation has been discussed and proved. Meditators admit significant changes in their memory, attention, and brain function when they take short- or long-term meditation programs. On the one hand, short-term mindfulness meditation helps people to complete full courses and observe the changes soon. On the other hand, long-term interventions demonstrate positive outcomes and behavioural improvements that are critical for society. The density of a grey matter in the brain is decreased, which results in stress reduction and the possibility to control emotions and thoughts. When people manage mind-wandering with the help of mindfulness meditation, they become more attentive, and their technical and working memory shows progress.
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