We’ve all probably heard that meditation can add value to our overall health and well-being, especially our mental health. Well, a study conducted by researchers of the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital concluded that mindfulness meditation has positive effects on our memory and emotional control. The study specifically focuses on our ability to respond to extinguished stimuli, which are things or events that are no longer there but continue to be a source of fear. Mindfulness training alters a specific region in our brain—the hippocampus—in a way that improves our sensory response, emotional regulation, and extinction learning. Extinction learning happens when people recognize that what they were afraid of is no longer around, so they don’t need to be afraid anymore.
In individuals with anxiety-type disorders, exposure therapy is a form of treatment. Exposure-based therapies expose individuals to fear-inducing stimuli—whatever it is that they’re afraid of—in a controlled environment. Although exposure-based therapies have proven to be effective in improving extinction learning, this study by Sevinc and colleagues suggests that mindfulness meditation is more effective.
The study hypothesized that mindfulness training creates the optimal exposure condition by increasing attention and awareness of present sensory experience, much like exposure-based therapies. There were a total of 67 participants in this study. 242 participants took part in a mindfulness stress reducing program.
The results showed that both types of programs decreased perceived stress but mindfulness training was responsible for more enhanced emotional regulation, attention control, and overall mental health. Mindfulness training enhanced connectivity between the hippocampus and primary sensory cortex (the specific part of the brain triggered by the fear response). This causes our processing of somatosensory (body sensation) information to be more effective by focusing our perception and awareness on the present moment and present stimuli.
Training our mind through meditation may be one of the best medicines. It’s critically important for our mental health as it helps with so many important functions. It leads to better emotional regulation, enhanced memory, improvements in focused attention and concentration, better eating habits, better sleeping patterns, reduced likelihood of anxiety disorders and stress disorders, and the list goes on and on.