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Mind the Mind. The Science and Meaning of Mindfulness

"The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass,

it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

Henry Miller

Not that long ago, the word “mindful” was mostly associated with the voice of the London tube announcing: “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Talking about mindfulness and meditation in the workplace was all too often, rather intimidating and peculiar.

The origin of the word “mindfulness” is equally exotic. In the 19th century, the heyday of the British Empire Thomas William Rhys Davids set out to learn Pali, the original language of Theravada, which is an old branch of Buddhism. In 1881, he proposed “mindfulness” as a synonym for “attention” that the Buddhists understood as “memory of the present.”

Millions of people around the world are now using mindfulness and meditation as a tool to improve self-awareness and cope better with the challenges of our increasingly complicated society. So, what makes this simple technique so popular?

According to neuroscientists, as we meditate, our brain goes through a process of physical changes, in other words, the brain is re-shaping itself. A study carried out at Stanford have found that an eight-week mindfulness course lowers the activity of the amygdala that is the centre of our emotions and increases activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help reduce the level of stress. Researchers from Harvard University confirmed these results stating that meditation improves our emotional control, and it can, therefore, be used as a realistic and maintainable stress management technique.

A few years ago scientists from the University of Groningen were looking at how mindfulness may affect awareness and the process of filtering out various mental processes during creative thinking. Analysing 157 people, the researchers found that mindfulness improved so-called insight problem solving, which is simply solving problems in a new, creative way. This study has documented a direct association between mindfulness and creativity.

Similar founding have been published by Dutch scientists who reported that meditation, which they defined as a non-reactive observation of thoughts over time, promotes divergent thinking and helps generate novel ideas.

Mindfulness helps us cope better with stress and daily challenges, but does it improve our health?

One recently published large meta-analysis of 163 different studies combined together suggested that mindfulness meditation practice has an overall significant positive effect on improving various psychological personality traits, like anxiety and depression. A short program in mindfulness meditation produced demonstrable positive effects on brain and improved immune functions.

A recently published study from the University of Wisconsin was looking at how meditation may influence the symptoms of chronic inflammatory conditions. After collecting both immune and endocrine measures of inflammation and stress before and after the experiment, scientist concluded that mindfulness interventions are associated with therapeutic benefits in chronic inflammatory conditions, particularly when it comes to symptom relief.

Another observational study has indicated that people who have learnt and applied mindfulness to real life, had an increased levels of antibodies to the flu vaccine, compared to non-meditators.

It's been known that lonely older adults have increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes as well as increased risk of morbidity and mortality. Scientists decided to test whether a mindfulness programme may in any way reduce loneliness and down-regulate loneliness-related pro-inflammatory gene expression. Although the study enrolled a rather small number of people (40 adults), the results were consistent with previously published data. Researchers concluded that mindfulness is associated with decreased levels of C-Reactive Protein (a marker of inflammation) and down-regulated gene expression in circulating leukocytes.

True mindfulness strives to change the very conditions that cause us stress and physical or mental discomfort. It is no longer an odd concept or an adaptive technique. It’s a cultural revolution and one that is well worth joining.

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