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Lost in Thought

June 2020

man meditating

In our lifetime, things have changed dramatically from a concept of “get on with it” to new trends in meditation and mindfulness.

The word mindfulness covers controlling our thoughts so that we can experience and concentrate on what is occurring in the present moment without judgement. The concept comes through Buddhist traditions and is based on historic practices including Tibetan meditation techniques.

The NHS have a good description of what mindfulness it all about. Quoting Professor Mark Williams, a former director of Oxford Mindfulness Centre, the NHS reports that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. The Professor says it is easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling. Instead we end up living “in our heads”, caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.

An important part of mindfulness is to reconnect with our bodies and the sensations they experience; waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment.

There is almost limitless information on line about how good meditation and mindfulness is for people, and how it can relieve anxiety, stress and a myriad of other problems.

However, information on what really happens to the brain when we meditate is harder to find although in recent years there have been a number of scientific studies undertaken. A team at the august American university Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can, after a while, actually change the structure of the brain. This included evidence that meditation could increase the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, an area which governs learning and memory and is also involved in regulating emotion.  The team also found that mindful meditation could decrease the brain cell volume in the amygdala. This is an area responsible for fear, anxiety and stress.

Another American university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also undertook some detailed research. The study was undertaken by a group of neuroscientists and a Tibetan monk agreed to take part. The monk had spent many years meditating in the Himalayas.  The researchers connected 256 electrodes to the monk, and when they took a full reading, they were very surprised. The results showed that a very unusual level of activity in the monk’s left prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for subduing negative emotions; and also in the gamma wave levels, another area connected with happiness.  The researchers were keen to emphasize though that it may have taken decades for the brain to change.

While right now there are no absolute clear cut statistics on brain changes achieved through mindfulness and meditation, especially as there are many different ways to meditate,  but the general idea is that stepping back and slowing the brain from processing all the mass of information most of us cope with every moment of the day is indeed beneficial.

Most of us can train ourselves to practise mindfulness, perhaps sitting quietly and paying attention to our thoughts and perhaps the sensations of breathing or parts of the body. A basic idea is not to let your mind wander.  

There are lots of courses available to help people and many choose to get involved through yoga, tai-chi or other activities which involvement an element of meditation and mindfulness.

If looking online, Be Mindful is an online mindfulness based cognitive therapy course that is NHS Pathway approved. The course has been designed to help reduce stress, depression and anxiety. The downside to the course is that it is not free…it costs £30.

You can find out more at:
https://www.bemindfulonline.com/

There is also some useful information on:
https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/

And also at:
https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/mindfulness/about-mindfulness/

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