The Mindful Brain: Q and A with Stefan Friedel

A few years ago on this blog, I presented a series on meditation (Here are links to parts one, two, three, and four). Research has shown effects of meditation on our physiology and mental health, and there has been limited research suggesting that it may be a viable option for treatment (or prevention) of mental illness.

One thing that scientists are working hard to figure out is how mindfulness, a trait that is related to meditation, is associated with neural changes. That is, we want to know if there are changes in brain structure and function in people who have this trait compared to people who do not. This is especially important to examine in young people whose brains are rapidly changing and developing. A recent study from our lab, published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, showed that there were changes in brain development over time between adolescents who scored high vs. low on dispositional mindfulness.

I had a chat with Stefan Friedel, the lead scientist on this study, to talk all things mindfulness and brainy in teenagers.stefan

Q: Your study showed that “dispositional mindfulness” was associated with differences in brain development in teenagers. What is dispositional mindfulness and why is it important?

A: Dispositional mindfulness is a quality of consciousness related to present-moment awareness. So people that are high in mindfulness live life in ‘the moment’, without undue thoughts or anxieties about the past or future.  While dispositional mindfulness can be cultivated by meditation, it is also a dispositiona
l trait that all people have to varying degrees. There are many associated psychological benefits with high levels of mindfulness, including enhanced self-regulation and improved health and well-being.

Q: Can you explain why adolescents of this age (16-19) were a perfect group of people for you to study how brain development and mindfulness are related? What is happening in these kids at this time that is so important for mindfulness skills?

A: Kids aged 16-19 are transitioning to adult independence and therefore learning to negotiate relationships and the environment around them without adult supervision. Good self-regulation is vital in this process, allowing adolescents to stick to a task without distraction, cope with strong emotions (that adolescents’ brains are hard-wired for) as well as help mitigate risky peer-pressured behaviours such as drug-use and unsafe sex. So, while mindfulness helps self-regulation in people of all ages, it might be of most benefit during adolescence where acquiring self-regulation is critical.

Q: The part of the brain that you found was related to mindfulness was the insula. Do you think this area is especially activated when people are practicing mindfulness or meditation, and why?

A: Long-term meditation practice has been associated with change within the insula in adults; also, research has shown that the insula is activated when ‘interoceptive awareness’ occurs, which is awareness directed towards the body. Given that mindfulness meditation practices deliberately cultivate interoceptive awareness, the fact that meditation activates the insula is not surprising. In our adolescent study, observing significant insula developmental changes occurring in association with higher levels of mindfulness is very satisfying as it bolsters, from a unique developmental perspective, the adult studies demonstrating insula involvement  in mindfulness.

Q: Can your study tell us if we should be screening teenagers using MRI to see if they are at-risk for self-regulation disorders?

A: Good question, and probably too early to say. Though MRI technology is becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, I think that outward behavioural signs, such as ADHD symptoms in childhood and adolescence are still the most practical way to determine if self-regulation might be a problem later in life.

Q: Based on your results and other studies, what kind of intervention programs do you think would be helpful for teenagers at-risk for self-regulation disorders? 

A: Personally, I think that a school-based approach is the way to go. Kids have so much to do nowadays, so many activities and commitments – so if you really want to encourage something, even an easy practice like mindfulness meditation it needs to be available in a timetabled format for them. School is the perfect place to do this. There have already been reports of successful results with school-based meditation practice, for example the Quiet Time program using transcendental meditation has been shown to be effective in reducing stress and violence as well as improving academic performance in low income US schools.

For individuals that struggle and need specific targeted help, there are short-term intensive mindfulness programs available. For example, mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) combine mindfulness meditation with psychotherapy over a month or two, which has been shown to be a highly effective therapeutic combination to help adolescents learn to self-regulate, with improved outcomes in mental and physical well-being following MBIs.

Q: Do you think practicing mindfulness would be beneficial for everyone? Why?

A: Mindfulness and meditation practice can benefit all ages. We live in a culture of go-go-go, a society that values high achievement and encourages long working hours. There is often little opportunity to take it down a gear and enjoy the moment. There’s an old adage that before you fire the arrow (activity), you need to pull back the bow (rest and relaxation). Meditation and mindfulness practice allow individuals to wind down quickly resulting in a calmer present-moment awareness. With a rested mind and less distracting thoughts, activity becomes better regulated and vital and therefore more effective and enjoyable.

Thank you to Stefan for taking part in this Q & A! A link to the article can be found here:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929315000663

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