One of the questions that I get asked from time to time is how exactly does mindfulness work to improve a person’s health and wellbeing.
One way to answer this question is drawn from the book “The Art and Science of Mindfulness” by Shapiro and Carlson. They suggest looking at mechanisms of action that are associated with the practice of mindfulness. One of the main mechanisms is something they refer to as “reperceiving”. This involves seeing what goes through our mind (including thoughts, emotions and physical sensations) from the perspective of an observer or witness. By doing this we can let go of any attachment and identification to the content of our mind and we are asked to view and see our experience with objectivity and greater clarity.
This can be demonstrated in the following example. Many of you may be familiar with a notion of the mind “telling a story” as it explains and makes sense of experience. A common story for many might be something like “I am not good enough”. This is often referred to as a personal narrative. Rather than becoming immersed in the narrative and saying ‘this is who I am”, one is asked to step back and observe and/or witness the story. The story then becomes an object of meditation rather than serving as a definition of who we are.
This process of “reperceiving” is not to be understood as a disconnecting activity. The idea is to continue to experience our life, and to let go our attachment to our experience as “I, me or Mine”.
Another way to answer this question is to look at some of the research on the impact of mindfulness on our brain and body. There is a growing amount of research in this area and I mention just some of the highlights. It is understood that mindfulness may improve immune function of the body. In studies where antibody activity was measured in response to the administration of a vaccine, the immune response in mindfulness practitioners was much stronger.
Research also shows that mindfulness will reduce the reactivity of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for signalling our nervous system to become active in the face of a perceived threat. This is accomplished by a thinning in the membrane of the amygdala as a result of mindfulness. Mindfulness also impacts the reactivity of the amygdala through an improved ability of the prefrontal cortex of our brain (the decision making part) to modulate the amygdala’s response. If we are able to reduce the impact of the amygdala, our stress levels will reduce as the activity of our nervous system lessens.