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The history and science of mindfulness

Watch Craig and Richard provide an overview of the history of mindfulness, and explore the science and the research on mindfulness.
CRAIG HASSED: We wouldn’t be hearing a lot about mindfulness these days if it wasn’t for the rapid expansion of the science and the research on mindfulness. And that’s really what has helped people to take it much more seriously. The practices go back thousands of years, and you really find the principles of mindfulness in all of the world’s great wisdom traditions.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Where it was an internal science.
CRAIG HASSED: That’s right. So I guess the lab in the days gone by was the persons or the practitioner’s own mind and body. So really, studying mindfulness from the inside out. But of course, these days we’ve got some pretty tricky strategies scientifically where we can study it from the outside in. Hopefully, those two meet at the same point. So we’re going to be exploring now a little bit about the science of mindfulness.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: One of the main catalysts for the research into mindfulness was Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which is a treatment for depression. And in the early 2000s, that really kicked-off the science of mindfulness. There have been lots and lots of studies now showing very, very powerful effects of that intervention.
CRAIG HASSED: Yeah, and they’ve really built on some of the early work of Jon Kabat-Zinn with MBSR and so on, but he really took it to a new level. So what we might do now is just to summarise some of the key points where there’s been quite a lot of research. Perhaps the first topic area has to do with mental health. So when MBCT was developed based on mindfulness principles, and applied for people that had recurrent depression, they found significant reductions, probably at least a 50% reduction in the relapse rate for people.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: So half as likely to get depressed again after receiving MBCT as part of their treatment for depression.
CRAIG HASSED: And considering that depression is the single biggest burden of disease in developed countries, even though we’ve got antidepressants and so on, that was very big news in health care.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: And interestingly, actually, there was a research study from a couple of years ago, a review of existing studies, that found that mindfulness is as effective as antidepressant medication for preventing relapse.
CRAIG HASSED: That’s right. And so then there are dozens of studies on that now, as there are with anxiety, for example, and other mental health problems as well, including stress. Some of the more difficult areas there are far less studies. They tend to be smaller studies, but looking at things like ADHD and autism and so on, dyslexia even. And in those kinds of areas, smaller research, it looks positive. But you’d have to say you’d want to be a very experienced mindfulness practitioner and very experienced in working with, perhaps, children or young adults who’ve got those particular conditions.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: To actually use it effectively with those people.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Also some research on psychosis, on personality disorders, on addiction. I mean, there’s really a growing research base around the effectiveness of mindfulness for mental health problems.
CRAIG HASSED: And we’ll just put in a little bit of a proviso here too, because in terms of using it in those, while a person’s in a very deep depression, it’s hard to learn and apply mindfulness. With very extreme anxiety, you need to be helped gently through that process, because a person will become more aware of the anxiety. If a person is in an acute psychosis, not a good time to be learning mindfulness practise. Or if a person’s got a past history of psychosis, for example, intensive practise may not be recommended. So there are some provisos.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Yeah, retreats we’re talking about there, too. And obviously, if you’re very anxious, or very depressed, or psychotic, going on a longer retreat not probably going to be your best friend.
CRAIG HASSED: No. So that’s the first theory. Richard, would you like to say something about the neuroscience? Because that really kicked off when those studies on mental health started to come through.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: I think that’s one of the things that’s really driven enthusiasm for mindfulness, Craig. Obviously, all this research building and people’s own experiences of it has really made people much more interested in mindfulness. But it’s something about the neuroscience, where we can literally see or almost touch the effect that it has. And when people start to realise that even small amounts of meditation practise or being more mindful in life starts to literally rewire the brain, that becomes very motivating. We see increases in the grey matter, or you could just say a thickening or a strengthening of the prefrontal cortex.
CRAIG HASSED: And that’s not just because of new connections. That’s mindfulness stimulating new brain cell growth in those areas, which up until about 2000, it was though the adult brain couldn’t do that.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Which is– yes, it’s a very, very promising finding. So we can literally just rewire the brain for better functioning, better mental health, thickening the prefrontal cortex, which of course, helps us to pay attention, to think and reason and plan. It’s where our short term memory is located. The ability to manage our emotions, self-awareness, impulse control, all of these things get stronger when we practise mindfulness.
CRAIG HASSED: And the signpost is pointing towards, perhaps, a benefit in terms of reducing the risk of dementia as well, although it’s early days in terms of that research. But it, in a sense, slows down the ageing of the brain. And so that certainly looks promising. But there are still a number of dots that need to be joined there.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: Other brain areas as well, the hippocampus, which is the long term memory area. Again, it forms new connections and actually sprouts some new neurons there. So neurogenesis taking place. The insula, which has to do with interoception, or an awareness of our own internal physical and emotional state, maybe the basis of empathy. And the amygdala, which is the fear centre in the brain actually starts to– because it’s not getting activated, and because we’ve got a use it or lose it brain, it actually starts to atrophy or decrease in size, meaning less stress reactivity.
CRAIG HASSED: All of this adds up to a person feeling better, but functioning better as well. In the clinical setting, so used and in health areas, and one of the first areas that was researched by Jon Kabat-Zinn, was in relation to severe chronic pain. And so people were helped significantly with pain. Then looking at people coping with major illnesses, like with cancer and multiple sclerosis are just two of the examples. So people cope better with life threatening or debilitating illnesses. There’s also effects on immunity. So better immunity, but also, it has an anti-inflammatory effect, which is very important for people who’ve got autoimmune, or perhaps pro-inflammatory conditions. Now, there’s even been effects on genetics.
So those improvements in things like immunity. And not just because it effects the immune cells itself, but it actually effects the DNA that regulates the immune cells. So this is epigenetic effects. Some of the most interesting stuff as well has come out of research on mindfulness for telomeres, which are little caps on the end of our chromosomes, and probably the best marker of our biological age that we have. And it’s been found that mindfulness switches on the repair enzyme telomerase and slows down the rate of ageing on the level of the DNA of the cells.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: So it literally slows the ageing process.
CRAIG HASSED: That’s right. I mean, we’re both 150 years old, and so it’s really working for us.
CRAIG HASSED: But those are some of the interesting areas. And also facilitating healthy lifestyle change, which is so important. Not just the direct effects on the health, but the indirect effects, because it helps people, for example, to get off the smokes or perhaps to eat in a more balanced way. And it can be helpful for mindful eating programmes. And so there’s that indirect effect, as it affects lifestyle as well.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: And just that body awareness means that we start to just naturally take better care of our bodies. We want to exercise. We notice the effect of not getting enough sleep. So we just start to sort of maybe regulate that a little bit better too.
CRAIG HASSED: Yeah, that’s right. So that’s just a few introductory remarks. And for those who are really interested to go into it in more depth, we’ll provide a little bit of a breakdown about some of the key areas that have been researched and some of the more interesting key findings.

Watch Craig and Richard provide an overview of the history of mindfulness, and explore the science and the research that’s informed the use of mindfulness in clinical settings.

The origins of mindfulness

The essential elements of mindfulness such as being present, connected to the senses, accepting, compassionate, non-attached and not living in a mental dream world are to be found in all of the world’s great wisdom traditions.

In fact, any time you have a moment of being truly aware and present you are discovering the origins of mindfulness for yourself. In the modern day, many of the world’s leading practitioners and researchers of mindfulness have been inspired by the Buddhist tradition but you don’t need to be Buddhist to apply mindfulness in your own life. It can be applied in an entirely secular and practical way.

Wisdom traditions generally refers to the philosophical stream within religions such as Gnosticism within Christianity, Buddhism, Vedanta, Daoism, and Sufism within Islam as well as non-religious philosophical traditions such as Platonism. It could also include wisdom derived from these traditions and expressed in the world’s great literary works.

See also

If you’d like to read more about the origins of mindfulness, its history and how mindfulness relates to wisdom traditions, consider exploring these articles if they are of interest to you. Doing so is optional.

Please note, these papers have been included to demonstrate some of the research in this area, but we do not expect learners to purchase a subscription in order to read the full paper.

Hopefully reading the summary provided in the free abstract will be sufficient for those who want to know more about the study.

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