A Bit on the Science of Mindfulness
In my last two posts, I've talked a little about what mindfulness is, and how it affects our daily life, from practicing, to stress, to focus, and creativity. Now, let's take a look at the science of mindfulness and meditation and its benefits for the brain. First of all, for research purposes, scientists are often comparing the brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation practices regularly vs. people who don't. Meditation doesn't have to be Buddhist, involve sitting on the floor, or incense. Teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield have taken the benefits of Buddhist meditation to people of all faiths, occupations, and "ability" levels (i.e., never meditated before). There are other mindfulness practices that don't include meditation, including yoga, martial arts, chi gong, etc. Here are some of the major benefits to integrating mindfulness practices into your life:
1.Your Brain Changes: Your brain actually can change the way it works thanks to a process known as neuroplasticity, which means that the way you regulate emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc., is changeable ( lots of other brain things like motor control and movement are changeable too). Scientists have found that meditation changes cortical thickness (i.e., the size of your cortex), "particularly true for brain areas associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing." Amazing! There has also been noticed changes in the size of the brain stem, grey matter density, and white matter density.
2. STRESS: Mindfulness practices can transform chronic stress (sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system) to the rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system). When you stay in a constant place of stress (fight or flight), your body's fundamental functions of sleep, digestion, and libido. I've found mindfulness practices to be extremely helpful in preparing for auditions, concerts, recitals, and dealing with stressful colleagues. Study here!
3. ANXIETY: Similar to the above changes with stress, your relation with anxiety can change by implementing mindfulness practices into your life. (This could be in conjunction with other therapies or treatments). Chronic anxiety and depression can be positively affected by contemplative practices (including meditation, mindful movement, yoga, etc.). See the study here!
4. FOCUS: We all know that focus and attention is hard to come by these days, between phones, TV, computers, and all manner of digital media. Mindfulness practices can help to hone our ability to focus on tasks, resist distraction, control impulses, and sustain attention. I've seen this first hand in my own life and practices, unquestionably! Think about practicing with keen attention to focus and detail, even for short periods of time. See the study here!
5. CREATIVITY: We know there is a focus between attention, problem solving, and creative inspiration, but a 2012 study concluded that mindfulness and creative problem solving go hand in hand. One of the things this and other studies looked at was "cognitive rigidity," as opposed to a freer approach to solving problems, creative endeavors, and thinking outside of the box. One of the conclusions was, “that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be ‘blinded’ by experience”. You know this in your own practice and performance life- there will be times when you are calm, focused, and profoundly inspired to practice, write, teach, or perform, and when you have creative musical ideas, new ways of teaching, or new solutions. See the study here!
So do you believe me now? Meditation practices can profoundly affect all people, but I think they are particularly relevant to the physical and emotional stresses of musicians, administrators, and music educators. Two great places to start are Headspace, which is an online secular guided meditation program that can be downloaded to an iphone, ipad, computer,etc, or the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which is a meditation practice implemented in medical communities, clinics, and private practices throughout the world.