What is mindfulness? An overview of the science and the benefits
Mindfulness is the skill of bringing our attention and awareness to experiences and events in the present moment, and observing these without judgment or evaluation.
This process of paying attention to what is happening in the moment can be applied to both internal experiences (for example thoughts, and body sensations) as well as external (physical and social) environments.
Driving to work being mindful could include observing that the traffic is heavy, but noticing and being aware of this without the mental commentary, “This is a pain, I’m going to be late, and that’s going to ruin my day”. Instead, staying mindful could include both being aware of your frustration with the situation and then turning your attention to the road ahead.
A number of factors contribute to a mindful state:
- Awareness: bringing full awareness to the present moment
- Attention: keeping complete attention on the present moment
- Being intentional: deliberately or consciously bringing this attention
- Being non-judgmental: this is a very important factor – setting aside or not following any mental commentary or judgments
- Curiosity: adopting a curious approach to what is noticed
- Openness: noticing new information or staying open to new experiences.
A useful concept is to think of mindfulness as the opposite of “autopilot”. We’re on autopilot when we go through our day or complete tasks without paying attention to what we are doing, are easily distracted or not “on task”, and are likely to have regular “chatter” in our minds that may not be helpful.
How does mindfulness work?
Knowledge and understanding about how mindfulness works has been informed by biomedicine and neuroscience research.
The scientific study of mindfulness has shown very clearly what is happening in the body and brain when people practise mindfulness, as well as some of the immediate and longer term benefits.
Let’s have a brief look at what this research has found:
Areas of our brains benefit from mindfulness practice
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is one area of the brain where there is a positive impact from mindfulness practice.
The ACC is a structure located deep inside the forehead, behind the brain’s frontal lobe. The ACC is primarily associated with self-regulation and cognitive control. It helps us suppress knee-jerk responses; alerting us when we’re faced with competing
demands. Consequently, the ACC helps us to decide whether to shift our attention and switch tasks knowingly, deliberately and with intention. The ACC is also associated with learning from past experiences, which helps support optimal decision-making. Some scientists think the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.
Conversely, when the ACC is “offline”, or not working optimally, you might see a person easily distracted from a task and failing to pay attention to the most important information around them.
As such, a well-functioning ACC is likely to be an essential asset. Imagine how important it would be on a busy building site, where team members are working alongside each other on different operations under hazardous conditions. Or where nurses are operating on a busy ward, called away to attend to one patient, which interrupts the administration of medication to another patient. When it comes to safety, good functioning of the ACC is likely to be very important.
Studies have also found improved functioning in the insula with the practice of mindfulness. The insula is activated when we are conscious of ourselves, including having awareness of our physical body. Consequently, when researchers exposed meditators and non-meditators to unpleasant physical conditions, meditators had greater activity in their insula – or, in effect, they were more aware of this experience. What could this mean for back injuries or repetitive strains in the workplace? Perhaps we could effect a greater use of micropauses, thus reducing injuries, by increasing our in-the-moment awareness of early discomfort.
Another part of the brain where there is a positive impact from mindfulness practice is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that puts the body into “flight or fight” mode when we feel in danger or under threat. This is an important survival response when we do need to react urgently and quickly, but not so useful if we need to be in a calm state.
Mindfulness practice has been associated with decreased grey matter volume in the amygdala – effectively, the amygdala shrinks over time with practice.
In addition, as the amygdala shrinks, a further very important part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – thickens. This change in brain structure over time is called “functional connectivity” – as the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, other connections get stronger.
Aptly named, as it’s located in the front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex manages what is called “executive functioning”, which includes all the higher level brain activities, such as creative thinking, strategic planning and complex decision-making. Thickening in the frontal cortex improves big-picture, cognitive functions, such as emotional control and perspective taking.
Can mindfulness at work reduce accidents and improve safety
The functionality of the hippocampus has also been shown to benefit from mindfulness. The hippocampus is our main learning and memory centre. Mindfulness increases the volume and density of the hippocampus and therefore the brain’s working memory, effectively giving us more “space” for noticing and responding to our environments. With more space, we can respond more effectively to challenging or changing situations.
Transitory states during mindfulness practice can become lasting traits
A very powerful and exciting finding from mindfulness research is that the states or transitory experiences that people experience during mindfulness practice can eventually become effortless traits over time. Essentially, this means that new neural pathways that are being formed by practice and the functions of these pathways then become automatic over time. Thus, for example, the calm, focused “state” you achieve after doing some mindfulness practice, can become the calm, focused “trait”, or longstanding characteristic, of your approach to life and experience of it. Why is this helpful? Automatic pathways require less energy and effort, which means again that more brain function can be directed to the task at hand.
Mindfulness leads to improved self-regulation
Scientists investigating exactly how mindfulness works have suggested that the benefits of mindfulness occur via particular cognitive (mental) processes and a specific neurobiological process. These “mechanisms of action” are improved:
- attention regulation
- body awareness
- emotion regulation
- change in perspective on the self.
In summary, mindfulness practice helps us pay attention to the most important information in our environment and our bodies, as well as manage emotions more effectively. These benefits enhance the “big-picture” perspective-taking which allows better self-management.
The general benefits of mindfulness
A strong body of scientific research, conducted with diverse groups of people, has demonstrated very clearly that people who practise mindfulness experience greater physical and psychological wellbeing, and less stress reactivity.
Some of the specific benefits that have been found include:
- Lowered cortisol response to stress
- Improvements in immune function response
- Reduced experience of pain
- Improved emotion regulation
- Less emotional exhaustion
Cognitive or mental benefits
- Greater cognitive flexibility
- Reduced error rates
- Faster reaction times
- Increased ability to manage distractions
- Less rumination
- Improved quality of sleep
- Improved task performance
From these general benefits, some of the scientists who research mindfulness have investigated particular benefits for employees from mindfulness practice.
Benefits of mindfulness for employees
Specific benefits from mindfulness, such as improved working memory, are also likely to be very useful for employees in managing “too much information”. Mindfulness will help us pay attention to the most important information, weigh up options and choose the best strategy for responding, as well as managing our own cognitive and emotional responses during this process.
Given there is strong research evidence that mindfulness is an effective strategy for people to manage themselves well, and is likely to be helpful for employees to improve their functioning, how might you go about introducing mindfulness in your organisation?
Introducing mindfulness in your organisation
We recommend that the first step is to choose what metrics your organisation will track to measure the effectiveness of introducing mindfulness, as well as the impact on safety and accident rates. Using your existing metrics, such as health and safety data and other key performance data, is a good place to start. Assessing any change in these metrics following the introduction of mindfulness, and at subsequent follow-up time points, then make it possible for your organisation to evaluate its impact and effectiveness. If organisation-wide initiatives are difficult, start with specific teams or across a particular business unit. Demonstrating effectiveness and ROI with a specific initiative then creates a strong business case for a broader application.
A second recommendation is to use appropriately qualified and experienced mindfulness practitioners to teach mindfulness skills to your employees. Ask about their experience teaching mindfulness to similar groups of employees or in comparable types of organisations and do check qualifications and references.
It is important also to recruit your organisational leaders to participate in the training, and to support their staff in the ongoing practise of the mindfulness skills.
The importance of supporting frameworks to enable practice sounds obvious as a recommendation. However, the skills themselves will be of limited benefit unless employees are encouraged to practise and opportunities to practise are provided during their work shifts. These opportunities don’t need to be for long time periods, but they do need to be protected to ensure they are not swamped by other more immediately demanding tasks.