April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
New research led by researchers with the Shamatha Project at the University of California, Davis suggests that focusing on the present rather than allowing the mind to drift may help lower levels of stress hormones.
Focusing your mind and mental resources on immediate experience is an aspect of mindfulness that can be improved by meditation training.
“This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale,” said Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. High levels of cortisol have been linked to physical or emotional stress, with prolonged release contributing to wide-ranging, adverse effects on a number of physiological systems.
The Shamatha Project is a comprehensive, long-term, control-group study of the effects of meditation training on the mind and body that has drawn attention from scientists and Buddhist scholars alike, including the Dalai Lama. The new findings are the latest results to come from the Shamatha Project, led by Clifford Saron. Saron is an associate research scientist at the UC David Center for Mind and Brain.
The study, published in the journal Health Psychology, employed a questionnaire to measure aspects of mindfulness amongst participants before and after an intensive, three-month meditation retreat. Participants’ cortisol levels in the saliva were measured as well.
Buddhist scholar and teacher B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies trained participants in such attentional skills as mindfulness of breathing, observing mental events, and observing the nature of consciousness during the long retreat. Individuals also practiced cultivating benevolent mental states. Such states include loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.
Individually, the study found a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol before and after the retreat. People who increased their mindfulness score after the retreat showed a decrease in cortisol.
“The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs stresses that the research did not show a direct cause and effect. She notes that the effect could run either way, in fact. Reduced levels of cortisol could lead to improved mindfulness, rather than the other way around. Mindfulness scores on the questionnaire increased from pre- to post-retreat. Cortisol levels, however, did not change overall.
Training the mind to focus on the present, according to Jacobs, may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future. Thought processes such as these have been linked to cortisol release.
“The idea that we can train our minds in a way that fosters healthy mental habits and that these habits may be reflected in mind-body relations is not new; it’s been around for thousands of years across various cultures and ideologies,” Jacobs said. “However, this idea is just beginning to be integrated into Western medicine as objective evidence accumulates. Hopefully, studies like this one will contribute to that effort.”
For the purposes of this study, Saron notes that the researchers used the term “mindfulness” to refer to behaviors that are reflected in a particular mindfulness scale, which was the measure used in the study.
“The scale measured the participants´ propensity to let go of distressing thoughts and attend to different sensory domains, daily tasks, and the current contents of their minds. However, this scale may only reflect a subset of qualities that comprise the greater quality of mindfulness, as it is conceived across various contemplative traditions,” he said.
Prior Shamatha Project research has shown that the meditation retreat had positive effects on visual perception, sustained attention, socio-emotional well-being, resting brain activity and on the activity of telomerase, an enzyme important for the long-term health of body cells.