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Mindful : December 2017
than a control group that hadn’t done the training. Another study at the University of Wisconsin showed that only 10 minutes of breath-counting helped offset the damaging effects on concentration of heav y-duty mul- titasking. Still another study, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, revealed that merely eight minutes of mindfulness practice improved concentration and reduced mind-wandering. The researchers also found that mindfulness had a dra- matic effect on working memory—the facility we have to manipulate stored information in order to reason and make decisions in a timely manner. One group of students that underwent a two-week course in mindfulness training boosted their scores on their GREs—the graduate school entrance exams—by more than 30%. Stress is another area where the evidence is particularly convincing. In one landmark study, researchers at Emory University gave volunteers an eight-week course of mindfulness training, then showed them upsetting photos to see how they responded. The result? A significant lowering of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers the freeze- fight-or-flight response. A third area with solid results is the study of compassion. According to Davidson, compassion practices, such as loving-kindness meditation, work very quickly, sometimes producing effects in as little as eight days of practice. “That doesn’t mean these effects are going to last,” he says, “but it implies that kindness may be an intrinsic part of the mind. What the practice does is reacquaint us with that quality in ourselves so that we can make it more accessible.” In one study at Davidson’s lab, a group of volunteers underwent a two- week program of compassion medi- tation and had their brains scanned while they looked at images designed to evoke empathy. Then they played a game in which they had to decide how much assistance to give victims who had been cheated by a crooked “dictator.” In the end, the volunteers ELISSA EPEL, PHD Professor in the Depar tment of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine KNOWN FOR Groundbreaking work linking severe stress with shor t- ened telomeres, cellular structures that play a key role in aging and dis- ease. Her mindful- ness research has focused on exam- ining the benefits of meditation for people experienc- ing chronic stress and without pre- vious meditation experience. FUTURE DIRECTIONS Taking a closer look at how meditation affects people who’ve suffered adver- sity in childhood. “They tend to have certain patterns of thought that are ideal targets for meditation train- ing,” Epel says. who had gone through compassion training donated twice as much money to the victims as the control group. And their brain scans showed increased activity in circuits for atten- tion, perspective taking, and positive feelings. Similarly, other studies have found that compassion meditation strengthens the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness. One area where the results aren’t as promising is the medical research field. Although numerous studies have shown that MBSR and other methods can help reduce pain and anxiety, the track record isn’t as good when it comes to curing med- ical syndromes or trying to unearth the causes of illness. There’s some evidence that short-term mindfulness training can decrease inflamma- tion and that longer, more intensive programs can stimulate an increase in telomerase, the part of DNA that slows cellular aging. But after exten- sive review, Goleman and Davidson concluded that the best studies in the field focused primarily on reducing psychological distress, which may exacerbate the suffering caused by the illness, rather than on discovering underlying biological mechanisms. How to Unstick the Self Recently, researchers have begun to take a closer look at the impact of con- tinued meditation on long-term prac- titioners. One of the most important discoveries is that repeated practice tends to make seasoned practitioners far less attached to the ongoing nar- ratives we make up about ourselves. And that’s beginning to shed new light on the way brain circuits work. Although the brain makes up only about 2% of the body’s mass, it burns about 20% of the body’s metabolic energ y, even when we’re doing nothing. Why? Because when we’re not focused on a specific mental task, the brain’s default mode network—the node connecting the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system—becomes highly → 58 mindful December 2017 science