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Mindfulness and Science of the Mind: Effects on Depression

By James M. Figetakis

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a two-part series stemming from the “Science & Clinical Applications of Meditation” conference held in Washington in the fall of 2005. To read James’ first article, please go to Past Newsletters and download the Fall 2006 issue.

Last fall, I attended a three day conference in Washington DC that brought together the His Holiness The Dalai Lama with the world’s leading neuroscientists, academics and “contemplatives” focused on how mindfulness and meditation practice can alter the brain’s structure and functions. They presented scientific evidence from 25 years of research in North America and Europe. Their conclusions collectively represent the largest body of work demonstrating how science and mindfulness practices converge to enhance and improve our mental, psychological and physical health and general well-being.

Dr. Ralph Snyderman, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, presented scientific data proving mindfulness practices affect the brain’s structure positively. According to Dr. Snyderman, the power of technology and science are insufficient to treat suffering alone. His research demonstrated that specific mind training has proven effects on the brain and can improve “the human condition” of suffering and pain. For example, repeated and focused meditation can affect the brain’s structure and change its networks through plasticity, because it affects parts of the brain that control compassionate emotions. It also minimizes pain and suffering because it coordinates oscillation between different brain areas through focused thought patterns. Furthermore, it minimizes destructive emotion such as prolonged stress, anger, fear and shock that causes changes in the mind, and therefore in the body.

Goals of Mindfulness
Cognitive Therapy

  • Re-establish balance in the brain
  • Re-establish healthy, yet detached relationship to the external world
  • Enhance well-being above normal to reduce imbalance when suffering is triggered

A major theme focused on how meditation positively affects mental and physical disorders, especially in addressing depression. Mental training decreases clinical depression and, while not a cure, it acts as a supplement or enhancement.

According to fifteen years of studies by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford University’s Department of Neurological Sciences, and Dr. Wolf Singer, of the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies of Neuroscience, in Germany, true depression returns and becomes a chronic disease, due to either genetic/hereditary factors or significant loss, such as death, divorce, job or other life traumas. These factors create the “out of control” conditions that may require medication and cognitive therapy. This occurs when one experiences a state of severe imbalance between mind and body conditions, resulting in extreme suffering that originates in the brain. Symptoms include active anguish that leads to a feeling of numbness in the mind and may also be felt in the body as severe physical pain. Some brain areas become overactive while others become numb, a brain imbalance that triggers the clinical state known as depression.

However, Drs. Sapolsky and Singer differentiated between healthy suffering and depression. The release of the hormone Dopamine can be a response to anticipation as a source of healthy anxiety, which in turn may transform pain into a more advantageous form of suffering or stimulation. This often leads to mind practices whose outcomes are associated with high-energy, peak performance, which is understood as stimulating, positive stress.

On the other hand, brain pattern responses such as numbness vs. overactivity may vary in each individual. The brain is especially reactive to “sadness triggers” such as personal circumstances of loss and can experience extreme and different depressive mind states in response. In some people, the brain may try to correct its “sadness” with over-thinking and excessive rumination as a coping mechanism, while others may experience extreme inactivity or numbness. This is sometimes known as being in shock due to a delayed emotional reaction.

Scientific evidence also shows that relapse into a depressive state is typical and even cyclical. For example, a sad emotion in some people more easily triggers a depressive state, often within 12 to 15 months of the previous phase, while in another person, sadness remains an emotional state from which he or she may recover. Approaches to depression personalities include cognitive therapy, which helps patients retrain the mind in its responses and belief systems, and medication, which works on the body first in order to reach the mind as a secondary effect.

However, neuroscientists also argued that retraining the mind can be achieved through meditation and mindfulness techniques, because they work through the mind first to reach the body as a secondary effect. The reverse of medication’s effects, this technique is called “Mindfulness Cognitive Therapy” (MCT).

MCT, outline in clinical research by Dr. Zindal Segal, of the University of Toronto’s Psychiatry Department, is used in psychotherapy to work with one’s thought patterns. First, MCT turns down overactive areas of the brain focused on the self and shifts overly self-focused belief systems. It provides tools to identify and deal with thoughts and mental formations and thereby reduces internally-focused activity. Second, it turns up numb areas of the brain related to empathy and external focus. Such mindfulness stress-reduction techniques are effective regardless of one’s mood because they help move one into intentional “mind approaches.”

MCT restores balance to the brain, thereby providing a path out of mental and physical suffering. It affects specific brain areas that regulate and trigger hormones in both men and women. These techniques average a recovery rate of 60 percent in patients who use mindfulness practices and do not use medication. While mindfulness techniques require discipline and focus in the patient, scientific evidence demonstrates their effectiveness. They can bring attention back to the present moment and develop awareness and clarity about one’s thought patterns and mental formations.

MCT also focuses on one’s relationship to the outside world. It emphasizes self-awareness techniques and insight-exploration because it helps coordinate the balance among body, senses and mindfulness. It increases one’s capacity for empathy and connecting with others. For those whose depression reaches an intense physical suffering, body and mind scans using meditation help relieve this suffering and restore balance over the medium to long term.

Both Dr. Esther Sternberg, of the National Institutes of Health, and author Jon Kabat-Zinn agreed that there are many mindfulness and meditative practices to further access this technique, such as body scans, present moment scans and sound scans in the environment of meditation. Other techniques include mindful stretching and yoga, deep breathing and shifting one’s relationship to external events: They are not about me nor my core identity but reflect uncontrollable external conditions. This realization, that they are not about me, may be the most difficult exercise. This is the ultimate challenge in our ability to let go and surrender to what we do not control.*

The bottom line agreement of more than 25 years of research among neuroscientists, academics and contemplatives, including The Dalai Lama: Mindfulness-based stress reduction and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy alleviate mental anguish and physical suffering common in depression. In extreme cases, they should be seen as a complement, not a substitute, to medication and other forms of therapy.

*One helpful source on this subject is “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz.

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