Mindfulness & Meditation – What’s the Science Say?

Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation are touted as wonderful ways to calm one’s mind & body, feel centered, and handle stress. But as a scientist by training, I was skeptical of all of these techniques and even considered them to largely be “mumbo jumbo”.  

Without data and science, it was hard for me to believe that by simply by focusing on our breath or trying to clear our mind we could see positive results that were not entirely psychosomatic.

But then I thought about my professional experience dealing with the pesky placebo effect in clinical trials and had to rethink my perceptions.

 

Perhaps the benefits of these techniques aren’t so farfetched after all?

 

In my book, Redefining Success, I dive into the research on these exercises and am happy to report that my perceptions have certainly changed. Perhaps some of these selected book excerpts help convince you as well.

 

Appreciating the Power of the Brain

Because of my work in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, the opioid crisis, and major depressive disorder, I have a newfound appreciation for the power of the human brain. Our brains have the ability to make us feel better, experience side effects, or even perceive pain differently—even if nothing has changed other than our beliefs!

 

You see, one problem we suffer from in clinical trials, particularly in neuroscience, is the placebo effect. If you’re unfamiliar, a placebo is a fake treatment (sugar pill, saline injection, etc.) that looks exactly like the medicine being tested.

 

In certain clinical trials, patients will be randomly assigned to either receive the real treatment or a placebo. The placebo effect is when the patients who are given the placebo treatment, something that should literally change nothing, experience a response due to this fake treatment. How can this be?

 

Because our brains are unbelievable!

 

To put some numbers behind how profound the placebo effect can be, clinical trials for antidepressants have an average placebo response rate of 36 percent, with some trials reporting up to a 70 percent placebo response rate (Meister et al., 2020)!

 

In clinical trials for pain management (opioid and non-opioid treatments), scientists have found placebo effects and patient expectations account for up to 50 percent of the effectiveness of pain treatments (Colloca, 2019). As you can imagine, when placebo response rates are this high, it is nearly impossible for a company to prove their treatment is actually doing anything. After all, if a simple sugar pill is having such a large effect, the medicine better be pretty incredible.

 

Because of this, there are tragically high failure rates in the clinical trials for these types of diseases. Okay, great, so now that we’ve established neuroscience clinical trials are,hard, you may be asking, “Why on earth are you sharing all of this?”

 

Because this realization that the brain can outperform sophisticated medicines and science made me open my eyes to the power that simple breathing & brain exercises, mindsets, and beliefs can have on our wellbeing.

 

So What’s the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation Anyway?

While both mindfulness and meditation are important and interconnected, mindfulness and meditation are in fact distinct from one another. The primary difference is mindfulness keeps your attention on yourself while meditation aims to take the attention off of yourself. More specifically, mindfulness aims to increase awareness of your emotional state, the present moment, and mental processes. Meanwhile, meditation aims to increase your personal awareness by focusing on an object of attention, oftentimes a mantra.

 

The Positive Effects of Breathing Exercises, Mindfulness, & Meditation

Through my book writing journey, I dug into the research to learn that there is a wide array of peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrating the positive effects of these wonderful exercises. There are a plethora of studies that show that these exercises have both psychological and physiological benefits and are even being used as treatments in some contexts. 

 

The US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has published research supporting mindfulness as a means to reduce anxiety, pain severity, and depression. Additionally, there are studies that point to mindfulness as a means to lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol levels, and change gene expression (Horton, 2014).

What’s even more astonishing is that by using neuroimaging, researchers found the practice of mindfulness actually changes brain function and structure in a variety of regions. That’s right, by practicing mindfulness, you can actually change the way your brain looks and acts!

In fact, mindfulness and meditation are so powerful that they are also being used as treatments for a myriad of conditions, such as bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, chronic stress, and ADHD (Marchand, 2014).

 

Mindfulness & Meditation – Not Mumbo Jumbo Afterall

So, I admit it… I was wrong. And that’s OK! Afterall, that’s how we learn and grow.

While this article shares just a tiny bit of scientific evidence, the research in this space is quite impressive. Still not convinced? I encourage you to dig into the data for yourself or learn more through my book.  

Ultimately, I implore you to keep an open mind and play the part of the scientist: experiment with breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation to see if you like them or not. I recommend you try each tactic daily for no less than two weeks to get into a groove and feel some effects.

As with any good experiment, I bet you’ll be surprised by the results!

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