Meditation: How Mindfulness Works – Spectrum of Science

Overall, researchers agree that mindfulness meditation is beneficial in a number of situations. However, for reasons that are not yet fully understood, people sometimes react completely differently to exercise. Some can benefit greatly from it, others barely. Therefore, mindfulness is by no means a panacea, but for many it is a way to strengthen well-being and mental health.

So if it is clear that technology can achieve something in the human body, the question of ‘how’ arises. Any perceptible change in cognitive ability or mood reflects abnormal brain activity. Several imaging studies have already attempted to detect such differences. Fox, who in 2016 evaluated 78 neuroanatomy studies of meditators, says the complexity of the task is “humiliating.”

Mindfulness is designed to help escape the tyranny of negative thoughts

At least the evidence suggests that mindfulness, like other forms of meditation, activates the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. This brain region connects the prefrontal cortex with the limbic system and is involved in top-down neural processes such as attention control. This makes sense because activation and deactivation of attention are the foundations of alertness. Another major area involved is the island. It plays a role in the perception of the body, for example in feeling its heartbeat. Simply put, it means that we get out of the head into the body with the help of meditation, says Fox. In this way, it is clear that our experience is grounded more in the present moment.

New research on brain activity also provides clues about how mindfulness can help people with chronic pain. Neuroscientist Fadel Zeidan, who heads the Mindfulness Center at the University of California, San Diego, causes pain in test subjects as it measures brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Some practice mindfulness meditation during the session, while others are given a placebo or do a control technique that involves only taking deep breaths.

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60 to 80 minutes of mindfulness training in advance reduced pain in all hundreds of people tested. On average, according to Zidane, pain was reduced by 45 percent — an effect estimated to be twice the clinical dose of morphine.

Emotional correction of pain

Amazingly, mindfulness doesn’t seem to relieve pain in the usual way: placebo, prayer, hypnosis, or medication all trigger the release of the body’s own opioids, which in turn impair pain-related signals in the spinal cord. Mindfulness methods help relieve pain even if you block this opioid mechanism. The effect also appears to be different: “Wakefulness has a much stronger effect on the emotional dimension of pain than on the sensory dimension,” says Zaidan.

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