Mind over matter*

So I’m back guys, two weeks later, and I hope to continue with a new post every two weeks so stay tuned in for more stuff on the brain and psychology and really awesome nerdy topics. Yay!

 

Today I’m talking about Meditation and Mindfulness, for three reasons. Firstly, mindfulness has been a really hot topic in psychology and the media recently. Secondly, mindfulness is a topic for one of my up-coming exams, so it’s good to get some revision in here. Lastly, I can be a bit of a sceptic, but I also like to challenge that too, and I can be a bit of a devil’s advocate.

 

So, what is Meditation and Mindfulness? It isn’t all bald monks siting crossed-legged saying ‘ummmm’. Meditation is the practice of self-regulation, focused on training attention and bringing mental process under control. Mindfulness is where the individual tries to focus their awareness on the present moment, where you do not attempt to control your thoughts and feelings but merely accept them. Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation.

mind over matter 1

Mindfulness isn’t a new phenomenon but has basis in Buddhism and has been practised for thousands of years. But recently mindfulness has achieved attention from the media as it has been found to have health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, depression, stress and increasing general well-being.

 

Now it may be just me, but I am rather dubious about mindfulness. When I think of engaging in meditation or yoga, I cringe (just) a little. The idea of sitting on a rug, with maybe some candles, my eyes closed and trying to remain in the moment, makes me giggle, and I’m sure if I tried it I would burst into a fit of laughter, knock over a candle, set the rug and possibly myself on fire, and the whole thing could end in with house going up in some terrible (but rather ironically stressful) fire.

 

And yet my whole family has tried mindfulness and enjoyed it. They have tried to convert me and I have remained stoically cynical. Equally, the idea of having ten minutes purely to myself, to reflect, each day sounds pretty wonderful if a little self-indulgent. But the evidence does speak for itself. Or does it?

 

Recently Mindfulness has been tested against or with other cognitive therapies (Segal et al., 2010). So this Segal guy conducted a study with 84 participants, who had major depressive disorder, in order to find out if mindfulness is as good as medication in preventing a relapse for depressed patients. Individuals were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:

  1. Discontinued antidepressants and attended eight sessions of Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  2. Continued their antidepressant medication
  3. Discontinued their anti-depressant medication and were put instead on a placebo. (This group acted as a control group, to check that individuals weren’t simply improving because they believed they would get better).

 

So do you want to see the results? I hope you are at the end of your seat! Here is a neat little table to show you the results in an easy way to understand:

Group 1: MBCT Group 2: Anti-depressants Group 3: Placebo
Number of participants who completed the therapy 11 8 6
Number of participants that relapsed into depression 10 13 18
Number of participants that dropped out of the study 5 7 6

 

As you can see, the Mindfulness therapy group performed the best of the three groups. This group had the most number of participants to complete the therapy, the least amount of individuals to drop out of the study and the least amount of participants to relapse!

 

Now I am not saying that everyone who is depressed and on medication should stop taking it and instead start mindfulness training. Please don’t do this or I will have a lot of angry and possibly depressed people on my hands that I will have to answer for! But this suggests that for depressed patients unwilling to take long-term medication, Mindfulness based cognitive therapy may offer an alternative.

 

But here comes my distrustful side. Everyone is an individual, what works for some people doesn’t work for others. Everyone has their differences (just like how I love beans on toast with Marmite underneath and a bit of Worcester sauce. Some people find this weird! Try it! It’s amazing!)

 

Theoretically, although the allocation to the groups were randomised, those in the mindfulness group may have been very open minded people about meditation, and therefore they may have tried very hard to ‘get better’ (so to speak!). This seems likely, otherwise why would you sign up for a study on mindfulness. In the future the research needs to have each participant take part in each of the therapies one-by-one in order to discover which therapy is actually better, when compared to one another.

 

Still this seems like compelling evidence that mindfulness has health benefits. But it also has other benefits.

 

So Slager et al. (2007) (he/she/they wasn’t a slag, or maybe they were. Who cares? That’s a whole another argument) did a study looking at how meditation can affect attention. We, as humans, do not have an infinite capacity for processing information. In short, we get distracted and only have a limited amount of attention we can give to a certain task. For example: it is hard to focus on listening to music and maintaining a conversation with someone all at the same time.

 

When we are asked to find two targets (for example: 3 and 9) in a series of rapidly presented letters (A T G K F…), we often see the first target but fail to see the second (see diagram below). This is because there is competition between the two targets for limited attentional capacity. This is known as the ‘attentional-blink’ deficit.mind over matter 2

 

 

But Slager found that when individuals undertook three months of intensive meditation, they had a smaller attentional blink. In simple, the individuals focused less on the first target, and therefore were able to attend to the second target more and ‘see’ it. They were accurately able to identify the second target.

 

In sum, this suggests that after meditation training, these individuals were able to better allocate their attention to each target and were able to distribute their limited brain resources better. So mindfulness can seem to improve our ability to focus our attention. But my question is how ‘real’ is this study? This doesn’t tell me whether meditation can actually make me less likely to daydream about Chris Pratt rescuing me from my burning house (as I had that incident with the candle) as Andy from parks and rec, while I am supposed to be revising.

mind over matter 3

So is it really meditation really that cool?

 

Well I’ll leave that choice up to you. After my research I have become a lot less cynical and sceptical about mindfulness, and actually plan to try it in the future. Mindfulness has also been recognised as a way to reduce stress, anxiety and increase Neuroplasticity.

 

So I’m sorry if this post was a little heavy and long, but I hope you liked it, (even if just the bit about Chris Pratt. Yum!) Happy to answer any questions about what I’ve spoken of, and more information below. Just to finish, here is a picture of a dog meditating.

mind over matter 4

 

Best Em x

 

 

 

 

*all credit for this pun goes to James Gregory, BA (Oh, Fancy!)

 

Mindfulness and how to get started:

http://bemindful.co.uk/

http://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/#

Mindfulness therapy versus anti-depressants and placebo:

http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleID=210951

Mindfulness and the attentional blink:

http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050138

Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/?_escaped_fragment_=po=35.7143

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