Common Science

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit tradition, used to practice an examen twice a day to orient his mind and become fully conscious in the present moment. The Ignatian spirituality emphasizes awareness of God in all things, and mindfulness in our daily lives can be a way to focus on what’s important.

According to Mayo Clinic, mindfulness is “the act of being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment – without interpretation of judgement.”

It involves accepting our thoughts and feelings as they are without believing there’s a “wrong” way to feel in a certain situation. Mindfulness realigns your thoughts to the present moment instead of worrying about the past and future.

The Center for Cura Personalis hosts “Mindfulness Monday” every week at noon in the Hemmingson Reflection Room to help students become self-aware and able to fully engage with the world around them.

A few ways to practice mindfulness, according to Mayo Clinic, include paying attention closely when someone speaks, focusing on “new” details of familiar items, practicing deep breathing and finding ways to awaken your senses. They suggest eating a piece of fruit, but with focus: be mindful of the way the taste changes and your body’s reaction to it.

Does mindfulness actually work?

A study that explored how mindfulness changes the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – found that after an eight-week mindfulness course, the amygdala shrank.

The amygdala is the brain’s “fight or flight” center, and it’s associated with fear, emotion and the body’s response to stress. When the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex (associated with awareness, concentration and decision-making) becomes bigger.

The functional connectivity between the regions also changed. According to Scientific American, the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration got stronger. The change was more substantial in people who had completed more hours of meditation practice.

Another study found that advanced meditators feel significantly less pain than non-meditators, even though their brain shows more activity in areas associated with pain.

“It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness the stimulation —and thus the stressing nature of it — by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” Joshua Grant, postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, told Scientific American. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”

It’s important to note the “meditators” were not in a meditative state when the brain imaging took place — it was a permanent change in their perception.

“We asked them specifically not to meditate,” Grant said. “There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different.”

According to a study by Ohio State University psychologist Ruchika Prakash, four weeks of mindfulness training could reduce emotional dysregulation in multiple sclerosis sufferers. Studies also show a link between the training and reduced inflammation of the brain, which can be present with health issues like depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” University of Pittsburgh researcher Adrienne Taren told Scientific American. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”

Doctors are now recommending meditation as a way to promote and maintain brain health in additional to the usual exercise, sleep and diet, according to Prakash. Mindfulness training could be a way to instill positive habits in patients.

“One of the avenues that I’m trying to get into is the idea of mindfulness promoting behavior change,” Prakash told Huffington Post. “Thinking about mindfulness really as a facilitator of behavior change is the next frontier within this research."

Rachael Snodgrass is the opinion editor. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelReneeee.