Tag Archives: mindfulness

The Psychology Behind Mindfulness


You know those nights when you’re lying in bed (for what feels like forever!) and you just cannot fall asleep? All the thoughts about the day and whatever else might be popping into your head are swimming through your mind and keeping you awake…

It turns out mindfulness has been found to help people quiet those thoughts that keep them awake. The practice of mindfulness has been studied for use in treating all kinds of maladies, such as depression and stress as well as for use with patients suffering from physical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, or HIV. This article asserts that it has also been found beneficial in helping with weight loss and maintaining an exercise program. The article also notes the technique’s usefulness in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. So, the question is, why? And how?

Mindfulness relies on the ability to focus attention on your awareness of the current moment. You allow yourself to be aware of any and all thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may have in order to process them without evaluating them critically. In essence, it relies on the ability to focus attention and maintain enough concentration so that you can seize control of thoughts that enter your awareness (which obviously takes a lot of practice). The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will prime the neural networks required for the process of identifying and acknowledging thoughts without criticizing them. Given all this, it makes sense that the technique might be effective in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. By shifting the focus of your attention and being more aware of the current moment (instead of whatever thoughts are keeping you awake), you may be able to better control your emotional responses to your thoughts.

The trick to mindfulness is the promotion of increased awareness of thoughts in order to promote better control over emotional responses to them. This is why mindfulness has been used as a treatment for anxiety disorders as well. The ruminative thinking that keeps us awake at night is a major cause of insomnia and also present in many anxiety disorders. The idea is that the ability to acknowledge thoughts in a different way, without driving yourself crazy over them, will ease anxiety (which is caused by this type of thinking). In order to do this, mindfulness encourages a sort of selective attention in which you focus your attention on something such as breathing, instead of rumination.

Okay, that explains why mindfulness is effective. But what types of strategies do people use?

Breathing is only one of many techniques you can use in order to focus your attention and be more aware of what is currently happening. (This short video explains how to do a common breathing exercise called the “4-7-8 Breath.”) Meditation is the technique that is perhaps the most talked about. Movement exercises can also be helpful.

In fact, mindfulness has been shown to have an impact on the functioning of the brain in general. For example, This article says that people who meditate show superior performance on tasks associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which deals with tasks related to self-regulation, the ability to direct attention, behavior and suppress immediate responses, and the ability to alternate strategies quickly. These skills are all necessary to exercise mindfulness and you would develop them the more you practice the technique.

In addition, when practiced regularly, mindfulness also leads to a weakening in the “functional connectivity” between the amygdala and the rest of the brain and a strengthening in the “functional connectivity” among areas associated with attention and concentration. So, “mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness, says.

So, next time your thoughts keep you awake, maybe consider being more mindful about what you are thinking. Like every other skill, it may take some practice before you start reaping the rewards from practicing mindfulness, but who knows what will happen once you’re able to focus your attention more effectively.

What do you think? Do you practice mindfulness or think it could be useful?


Mindfulness Meditation May Boost Your Test Scores!

I recently became interested in using mindfulness to combat stress and reduce anxiety in order to increase my academic performance. But could mindfulness techniques straight up improve testing ability? An article from the Huffington post makes this claim, citing a “new study that shows mindfulness could help students perform better on tests by boosting their memory and comprehension skills”. I found this quite interesting and wanted to take a deeper look at the research.

In this study done by Michael D. Mrazek, participants were randomly placed in a two week mindfulness class or a nutrition class for two weeks.  The mindfulness class taught physical and mental strategies that helped people focus on the present moment. Participants were told to use this strategy throughout each day, and when they had of interrupting or intrusive thoughts.  To test progress and difference between the experimental and control  groups, the participants were assessed on a working memory capacity task as well as the verbal reasoning section of the GRE before and after the two week classes. The results were significant, showing that people who received mindfulness training had improved accuracy on the GRE and higher working memory capacity compared to the control group in the nutrition class. Analyses were run to conclude that the difference could be explained in part by the reduced mind-wandering during the tasks, a result of mindfulness training.

In a journal article for the Association for Psychological Science, Mrazek discussed the significance of his study, saying “Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn’t be unusual to find mixed results, but we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it and improved performance on both reading comprehension and working memory capacity.” Additionally the article reported that the same researches estimated that mindfulness training could result in an average 16 percentile point boost on the GRE!

In conclusion, this study supports the research hypothesis that ”Mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension score and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE”.

I found another peer reviewed article that is a systematic review of neuropsychological findings on the topic of mindfulness training and cognitive ability. It reviewed 23 studies on the topic and found that overall these studies showed “preliminary support for the notion that MMPs could provide significant benefits on several measures of cognition.”

Given this information, perhaps a new study tip would be to engage in mindfulness exercises each day before starting to study. Mindfulness allows you to focus on the present moment and encourages the dismissal of distracting thoughts. This could help you on tests, but also daily as you study for them. It goes without saying, if you are better able to concentrate while you are studying, you will remember more content. So, try out this guided mindfulness exercise before your next study session and let me know how it goes!