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It is a plus for mental health treatment that researchers are increasingly generating hard research data about about the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
With emphasis now placed on therapists providing evidence-based mental health services, having more proof of the positive effects of mindfulness may give meditation the status it deserves in medical and insurance industries.
Researchers have found ways to generate testable theories about how mindfulness affects our brain and body. For instance, in one study student participants either meditated in a group that focused on breathing in and out of the belly, or in a group that focused on breathing through the nose.
The belly focused group described their meditation experiences with references to body areas and physical sensations. The nose focused meditators described their experiences in terms of "quality of mind," and how their state of attention “felt.”
The different experience of these two meditation groups generates testable research theories about which regions of the brain are affected by each type of breathing focus (belly or nose). Investigating these theories will generate more evidence.
One research team has already studied the effect of meditation on the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The PCC might be involved in internal-directed thought, focused attention, or brain-networking for conscious awareness; its role is not yet clear.
When meditators reported a sense of “effortless doing” or “undistracted awareness,” brain imaging revealed their PCC registered little activity. When the meditators reported being distracted, their PCC showed a significant increase in neural activity.
Using the brain imaging as bio-feedback, some of the meditators—who were from different meditation traditions—quickly learned to control the level of activity in their PCC.
The PCC researchers hypothesize that in like fashion, mindfulness meditators may exercise increased control over their sensory cortical alpha rhythms. These alpha brain waves are involved in the regulation of processes such as pain sensation, and depressive thoughts.
It is easy to see how brain-meditation research may lead to increased confidence in the use of meditation to address mental health issues. This is promising because once someone learns meditative techniques, they can use them at will. This may especially benefit individuals who have limited access to healthcare or mental health services.
“In low-income communities you always see a lot of untreated mental health disorders,” said researcher Juan Santoyo of Brown University. “The perspective of contemplative theory [research] is that we learn about the mind by observing experience, not just to tickle our fancy but to learn how to heal the mind.”
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