Mindfulness and the brain

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What is mindfulness?

The practice of mindfulness is drawn from Buddhist and Hindu meditation traditions. It's a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He provides the following definition of mindfulness:

"It is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgementally. So it's awareness, and the awareness is cultivated by paying attention, and in a particular way - on purpose. In other words, intentionally. In the present moment, which is the only moment we ever have to be alive in. And then, most challengingly of all, non-judgementally. And that means - of course we have judgements about everything, but to not be caught in those judgements so that we colour everything through our likes and dislikes . . . That sounds pretty simple - okay, paying attention, I can do that. But when you start paying attention to how much we pay attention, a lot of the time our minds are all over the place and we have a very hard time sustaining attention. And our attention is not very vivid, and it's not very stable. . . . It's something that we can teach to people - how to pay attention. And it is very powerful to learn how to sustain attention moment by moment by moment by moment by moment . . ."

Using mindfulness and neuroplasticity to treat OCD

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is characterized by cognitive distortions, that is, inaccurate or exaggerated thoughts and ideas that build up to a degree of disabling anxiety that does not go away. "There are many kinds of worriers and many types of anxiety - phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and panic attacks. But among the people who suffer most are those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, who are terrified that some harm will come, or has come, to them or to those they love" (Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself).

For people with OCD, intrusive thoughts produce apprehension, fear, or worry - e.g., fear of germs. They do something to diminish the resulting anxiety, but the anxiety doesn't go away, which produces repetitive behaviours - e.g., compulsive, ritualized handwashing to get rid of germs. They may become further distressed by the realization that their obsessions and compulsions are not rational or reasonable. The disorder worsens over time, because every time they have an episode of OCD and repeat the associated behaviour, they strengthen the synaptic connections ("neurons that fire together wire together"), deepening the "obsessive circuit" in their brain.

Jeffrey Schwartz calls this phenomenon brain lock. He compared PET scans of people with and without OCD and developed a plasticity-based procedure that helps individuals with OCD to rewire their brain and "unlock" brain lock. The process involves weakening the synaptic connections ("use it or lose it") to decrease the frequency and length of OCD episodes and regain control of their brain. Patients' PET scans after their psychotherapy revealed that the areas of hyperactivity had been calmed and their brains had normalized.