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Lions Roar : March 2010
68 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2010 portional to their number of hours of practice. But this finding, too, along with studies of “adepts”—those who have spent often tens of thousands of hours meditating—need to be interpreted with caution as to cause and effect. are those with differing brain activity and structure simply those who’ve chosen to meditate, or has the meditation actually changed their brains? These ques- tions remain open and in need of further studies. MBSr has proven an excellent source of insight into these questions because it enables novices to engage in new practices which can then be identified as the variables that induce the positive changes that follow. What are these changes, whatever their specific causes? Studies of MBSr have consistently found several key developments that demonstrate its effectiveness as a health-promoting activity. These may be key to the “science of mindfulness.” first, a “left-shift” has been noted in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced following MBSr training. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Naturally, such an approach state can be seen as the neural basis for resilience. Second, the degree of this left-shift is pro- portional to the improvement seen in immune function. our mind not only finds resilience, but our body’s ability to fight infection is improved. at the University of california, los angeles, Da- vid cresswell and his colleagues have found that MBSr improves immune function even in those with hiV. improved immune system function may help explain the increase in healing found in the psoriasis treatment studies with mindful reflection during treatment. Third, MBSr studies reveal that patients feel an internal sense of stability and clarity. Using a modified version of a general MBSr approach in our own pilot study at the Ucla Mind- ful awareness research center, we’ve found that adults and adolescents with attentional problems achieved more executive function for a systematic set of research investigations in collaboration with one of the founders of the field of affective neuroscience, richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Kabat-Zinn repeatedly clarifies in his writings and teachings that MBSr, despite its Buddhist roots, is a secular application of mindfulness, which is a practice of carefully focusing attention, not a form of religion. indeed, each of the mindfulness practices mentioned above share common, secular elements: cultivating an awareness of awareness and paying attention to intention. Studies show that the ways we intentionally shape our internal focus of attention in mindfulness practice induces a state of brain activation during the practice. With repetition, an intentionally created state can become an enduring trait of the individual as reflected in long-term changes in brain function and structure. This is a fundamental property of neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to experience. here, the experience is the focus of attention in a particular manner. a question that is raised regarding the spe- cific features of MBSr is what is the “active in- gredient” in its powerful effects. Naturally, the experience of joining with others to reflect on life’s stresses, listen to poetry, and do yoga may each contribute to the program’s scientifically proven effectiveness. But what specific role does meditation itself play in the positive outcomes of the MBSr program? one clue is that those practicing mindfulness meditation during light- treatment for psoriasis revealed four times the speed of healing for the chronic skin condition. and in other studies, long-term improvements were seen and maintained in proportion to the formal reflective meditation time carried out at home in their daily practice. further research will be needed to verify the repeated studies affirming that long-term im- provements are correlated with the mindfulness practice, and are not just the effect of gathering in a reflective way as a group. Sara lazar and her colleagues at Massachusetts General hospital have found that people who have been mind- fulness meditators for several decades have structural features in their brains that are pro- The ways we intentionally shape our attention in mindfulness practice induce long-term changes in brain function and structure. This is the principle of neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to repeated experience. Dan Siegel, MD is the author of Mindsight: The New Science of personal Transfor- mation and The Mindful Brain: reflection and attunement in the cultivation of Well-Being. He is co-director of the UCla Mindful awareness Research Center and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCla School of Medicine. phoToByNaTaliNecaia