The Science of Mindfulness
Daniel Rechtschaffen, marriage and family therapist and founder of the Mindful Education Institute, discusses how mindfulness practices can generate stronger and healthier patterns in our brains—and in future generations, too.
In practicing mindfulness, we can learn to effectively integrate different parts of the brain and mediate internal conflicts. There is a basic neuroscience concept, “Nerve cells that fire together, wire together.” Due to recent findings of neural plasticity, which is the ability for the connections in our brains to change and adapt throughout our lives, we now understand that our brains can generate stronger and healthier neural connections based on our mental habits. Mindfulness trains our brains to respond in ways we choose instead of always in a default manner, which often is a knee-jerk reptilian reaction. This is especially pertinent in situations that bring up stress or conflict. For instance, if a child has learned to use violence to react to feeling scared, mindfulness can help him or her become aware of this habitual behavior and the feelings underneath it, and ultimately rewire the reaction to a constructive and positive one.
Studies have shown that long-term mindfulness practitioners actually grow thicker prefrontal cortexes, this being the brain region responsible for executive functioning (EF). Developmental neuroscientists studying the effects of mindfulness on executive functioning say, “Mindfulness-based interventions that focus on increasing awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions have been shown to improve specific aspects of EF, including attention, cognitive control, and emotion regulation.” This means that through mindfulness, students can learn to pay better attention in class, regulate their emotions, and develop stronger social fluency. Through mindful breathing, walking, and compassion practices, kids can develop the neural linkages that foster a healthy life.
Although the field of mindfulness in education is still young, there has been a flurry of research on the effects of mindfulness in classrooms, juvenile detention centers, and other youth-based centers. Most of the research is still in preliminary phases, but the results are pointing to the promising goals we all hope for. Positive attributes such as the ability to emotionally self-regulate, demonstrate empathy, pay attention, and exhibit improved executive functioning go up, while destructive tendencies such as impulsivity, violence, and stress go down. Many studies still need to be done to see which practices are effective at which ages and to which effects, but here is a sample of what we have already learned.
- A 24-week mindfulness training with a group of first-, second-, and third-graders resulted in improvement on attention tasks and significant improvements in symptoms of ADHD
- A mindfulness training was conducted for students in Belgium aimed at reducing depression. The findings suggest that school-based mindfulness programs can help reduce and prevent depression in adolescents
- A mindfulness-based stress reduction program, adapted for teens, found that those receiving MBSR self-reported reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and somatic distress and increased self-esteem and sleep quality
- In juvenile detention centers, one study showed significantly reduced hostility and emotional discomfort in its incarcerated population after mindfulness training. These incarcerated youth improved in interpersonal relationships, school achievement, and stress after going through the training
- In a groundbreaking study, it was found that “mindfulness training improved both GRE reading comprehension scores (by an average of 16%) and working memory capacity, while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during the completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory”
Research like this is beginning to show us the extent to which mindfulness offers students the key ingredients to living a healthy, happy, and successful life. From a results-based perspective, we see that mindfulness raises test scores and reduces behavioral problems. What is most inspiring to me is the way I see children, through mindfulness, learning to feel fully comfortable in their own skins, trust themselves, and be compassionate to the world around them. Even more than raising test scores, I hope for an entire generation of students cultivating compassion for themselves and others. If a child’s mind is wired by his or her relationships with caregivers, then imagine our children becoming even more integrated than we are, and their children becoming even more integrated, and moving in the direction of a peaceful, integrated society.