I am always fascinated when new scientific research seems to support what we know from our own experience, that mindfulness is more than just a state of mind; it changes our brain in physical ways that have a positive effect on health.
Research from Carnegie Mellon University in February this year is a case in point. Published in Biological Psychiatry, a study led by David Creswell, associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, shows that mindfulness meditation training, compared with relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker.
The study was conducted over just three days and found that mindfulness could alter fundamentally our brain’s connections, improving it in the areas that are vital for attention and executive function. When stressed, the brain becomes better equipped to handle extra demands placed on it rather than succumbing to inflammation and disease. Interestingly, a control group which practised relaxation techniques did not achieve the same benefits.
Prof Creswell has said: “We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health.”
My own experience supports these findings. I use meditative mindfulness before business meetings, knowing it makes me feel sharp, and will help me make better decisions.
But it’s not just the individual who benefits from mindfulness. Management scientists at Case Western Reserve University have taken that neuroscientific research into the workplace and found a corporate culture of mindfulness improves focus and the ability to manage stress.
The researchers reviewed 4,000 scientific papers on various aspects of mindfulness, and published their results in August in the Journal of Management.
Among their findings was the heartening conclusion that mindfulness appears to impact positively human functioning. Research in such disciplines as psychology, neuroscience and medicine provided a wealth of evidence that mindfulness lifts attention, cognition, emotions, behaviour and physiology.
Specifically, they said, mindfulness has been shown to improve three qualities of attention: stability, control and efficiency. The human mind is estimated to wander roughly half of our waking hours, but mindfulness can stabilise attention in the present. Individuals who completed mindfulness training were shown to remain vigilant longer on both visual and listening tasks.
What perhaps is most exciting for the future is that mindfulness may be seen as something which positively affects interpersonal behaviour and workgroup relationships. How can it do this? Through encouraging greater empathy and compassion, which are both important for leadership and teamwork.
Smart businesses know this already. Google trains 2,000 of its engineers in meditation each year. BlackRock and Goldman Sachs offer mindfulness courses for their employees.
As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”