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Mindful : December 2013
Dissecting Mindfulness “Can I study meditation and have a future as a scientist?” In 2001, when David Creswell asked his graduate school advisor at UCLA that question, the answer was not obvious. Only 28 scientific papers on mindfulness had been published that year. Nonetheless, his advisor encouraged him, saying, “If you study meditation in a scientifi- cally rigorous way, you could make quite an impact.” Creswell, an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is also director of the university’s Health & Human Per formance Labora- tor y. He has become one of the leading researchers in a field of study that has grown expo- nentially over the past decade, with more than 400 scientific papers published every year. Stress is a big reason for the increased interest. “If you look at the mindfulness medita- tion literature in medicine over the past 10 years, you’ll see the studies are almost entirely focused on stress-related dis- eases,” Creswell says. “Irritable bowel syndrome, some cancers, depression, psoriasis—there’s a pattern here of disorders known to be either triggered by or exacerbated by stress.” Creswell’s strategy has been to identif y significant popula- tions where stress may be a key element in deteriorating health and see if a mindful- ness intervention can help. For example, a small randomized control trial conducted in 2009 found that mindfulness could slow disease progression in HIV- positive adults who exhibited moderate to high stress. The HIV virus attacks specific components of the immune system, most notably CD4 +T lymphocy tes that help block pathogens and infec- tions. When the lymphocytes decline to a cer tain point, HIV becomes AIDS. Stress acceler- ates this process. According to the results published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, par ticipants in the control sample showed the expected decline in lymphocytes, but “counts among participants in the eight-week MBSR program were unchanged from base- line,” the level prior to taking the training. Creswell gave Mindful a pre- view of another study that is yet to be published. Researchers randomly assigned stressed, chronically unemployed adults to either a three-day MBSR program or a standard rest-and-relaxation retreat. Brain scans taken before and after the retreat showed that the brains of the people who had taken MBSR had been changed in ways that helped them manage their stress more effectively. Creswell’s own interest in studying mindfulness star ted in high school. “My fascina- tion was to understand how meditation gets under the skin to influence health.” For a psy- chology project, he strapped a hear t-rate monitor to a medita- tor, obser ving a drop of 10 to 15 hear tbeats per minute. “I remember being so dis- appointed—I think I had some idea that their hear t would stop or something,” he recalls. “But David Creswell, director of the Health & Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, researches how mindfulness interventions can help with diseases that are exacerbated by stress. A 2013 study published in Social, Cognitive and Affec- tive Neuroscience found that mindful attention can reduce both self-reported cravings in smokers and neural activity in the craving-related region of their brains. A study in NeuroImage in 2013 concluded that mindful- ness-based cognitive therapy may be an effective treatment for reducing anxiety and mood symptoms in patients with generalized anxiety disorder. EAT LUNCH silently today. Look at what’s at the end of your fork or spoon. Appreciate it. It will taste bet ter. Find more on Twitter @mindinterrupter In 2012, a study published in Brain, Behavior and Immu- nity found that an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program helped decrease loneliness in older adults. A study published in Psychological Inquiry in 2007 examined the theory and evidence of how mindful- ness cur tails distress and enhances mental health, physical health, and behav- ioral regulation. all these years later, I’m still kind of doing the same thing, albeit in perhaps a more nuanced and scientific way: at tach- ing physiological monitors to meditators and studying what happens as a result of medita- tive experience.” His interest in mindful- ness led him to a monaster y in France, then to meditation retreats in the U.S ., where he deepened his experience of meditation and recognized its health benefits for himself and others. In 2001, he decided to pursue graduate studies in social psychology at UCLA. To date, Creswell and his colleagues have published 11 scientific papers about their mindfulness-based research. In future studies, Creswell says he intends to “barrel more deeply into the mechanisms of mindfulness. I want to really look at the various components or facets of mindfulness—the ability to be present-minded, the ability to accept and respond to information in a nonjudgmental way. I want to pull them apart, understand them, and see just how they can improve our well-being.” ● Research Highlights A sampling of David Creswell’s mindfulness-related studies. For more about David Creswell’s research, go to mindful.org/creswell 12 mindful December 2013 now PHOTOGRAPHBYSHILOREA