Mindful

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1) Practicing mindfulness meditation cures physical illness.
False. Meditation improves the psychological symptoms of people with illness, but research so far has not proven that meditation can actually cure illness. Many studies that investigate whether mindfulness meditation can decrease physical symptoms of different diseases show inconclusive results. For example, across 38 different studies, mindfulness meditation was found to have only a small effect of alleviating chronic pain. However, there is strong evidence from several recent meta-analysis studies showing that mindfulness meditation positively impacts the psychological wellbeing and mental health of people with illness. For example, MBSR was found to consistently improve signs of depression, anxiety and psychological distress across 8 different studies, in people with cancer, chronic lower back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and heart disease. Another meta-analysis of 9 different studies show that MBSR and MBCT do not always improve physical outcomes of vascular disease (e.g. hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and stroke), whereas the psychological benefits from MBSR/MBCT interventions, such as reduced stress, depression and anxiety, are very evident.

2) Our DNA determines our wellbeing and happiness.
False. Genetics can influence many physical and behavioral outcomes, but it is certainly not a determining factor of our wellbeing. A literature review of 30 twin-family studies looked at the genetic vs environmental influences on wellbeing across more than 50,000 individuals. It found that wellbeing is only 36% influenced by genetic effects, while “satisfaction with life” is 32% influenced by genetic effects. Of course, there are also challenges to such studies, with ongoing debate on the meaning of wellbeing and how it should be measured, as well as differences between the tools, questionnaires and scales used in such studies to capture different aspects of ‘wellbeing’. In short, such findings should be interpreted with caution.

3) Our level of happiness is affected by our connection with nature.
True. Research shows that the more connected to nature we feel, the more likely we are to feel positive emotions. We have heard of studies showing that soil microbe can increase serotonin and dopamine levels, so maybe a good inhale of healthy dirt can boost your mood! But what about individual differences in cognitive, emotional and experiential connection with the natural environment? A meta-analysis looking at 30 studies with a sample of 8523 subjects in total, found that stronger feelings of ‘inclusion of nature in oneself’, ‘nature relatedness’ and ‘connectedness to nature’, all had a strong relationship with self reported vitality, positive mood and life satisfaction. Even demographic characteristics such as gender and age did not affect these strong relationships, and in general, individuals who are more connected to nature also tend to be happier.

4) The amygdala is the emotional center of our brain?
False. The amygdala is not the emotional center of the brain, because it does not act alone to produce our emotional experiences, and is more involved in negative emotions but less involved in positive emotions. First, let’s take note that our brain does not function in separate chunks. Sure, different regions have different functions, but these regions are always talking to one another, forming connective networks, and working in synchrony or opposition depending on what the process is. Take emotional regulation, for example. A very large meta-analysis of over 60 brain imaging studies on emotional regulation showed that the amygdala activity is very consistently tied to the level of emotional intensity that one experiences. When negative emotions are intentionally ‘calmed’ – i.e. individuals willfully change the intensity and internal direction of their emotional response – activity in the amygdala and the parahippocampal gyrus decrease, while the prefrontal cortex and anterior cortex increase in activity. What this shows is a see-saw action of brain activity during emotional regulation, where amygdala is like the gas pedal, and the prefrontal cortex regions are like the brake pedals. The amygdala is very clearly associated with how intensely we feel emotions, but it takes a network of brain regions to process and regulate this emotional experience.

5) Kindness-based meditation leads to improvement of health and wellbeing.
False. Research shows that kindness-based meditation, when practiced on its own, can provide short-term improvement of mood, but does not form long-term or stable traits of health and wellbeing. We often hear the words compassion and gratitude in our practice, as well as different types of meditations besides mindfulness, such as loving-kindness meditation or compassion meditation. In an attempt to review whether such meditation practices alone also have positive impact on health and wellbeing, a meta-analysis of 22 studies with 1747 participants was conducted. Results were largely mixed: while kindness-based meditations as a practice alone (without mindfulness meditation) facilitates positive emotion, there were no significant improvements in more stable measures of wellbeing, such as quality of life or satisfaction with life. The study also included that these practices alone may be initially challenging for some people, as indicated by high drop-out rates in intervention programs that use kindness-based meditation alone. In general, however, these meditation practices do help, and were found to decrease self-reported depression, increase mindfulness, compassion and self-compassion.

Crystal Goh

Crystal Goh is an affiliate at the Applied Neuroscience Lab, which develops social-engagement programs with non-profits in Asia and USA, combining Neuroscience, Meditation and Environmentalism. Previously, she was a sleep scientist and cofounder of brain imaging company Araya.

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