What comes to mind when you think of mindfulness? For many it’s an image of a yogi, a Buddha, or a wellness influencer. Maybe it’s a phone app or a fitness outlet.
For me, it’s science.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword synonymous with self-care and meditation, promising wide-ranging benefits from reducing stress to increasing happiness. It’s now a multi-million-dollar business, with thousands of apps touting the benefits of mindfulness in one way or another. And among all this buzz, I’ve seen a few articles that push back on mindfulness. Often, they’re not wrong to question the claims some apps have made. But as a neuroscientist and physician, I’ve been impressed with the growing amount of evidence in support of the approach.
Like other “hot” topics, mindfulness has been hijacked by hype and misunderstanding. For example, many think that the goal of mindfulness is to clear your head of all thoughts. That’s a hard thing to do, and if you’ve tried mindfulness under that assumption, you’re destined for disappointment.
Mindfulness is really about paying careful attention to our thoughts and behaviors, not trying to suppress them. When we do this, mindfulness helps us clearly see the cost and benefit of any given situation. It can, for instance, help us overcome cravings and addictions of all kinds. In one pilot study, we found that an evidence-based mindfulness training led to a 48% reduction in anxiety among participants after completing 28 core modules of the program. And we’ve seen this success not only with anxiety, but with overeating, smoking, social media use, and more.
Why might mindfulness be so effective? It starts with neuroscience. Our brains are wired based on the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes – the reward-based learning system. The system is based on a trigger, behavior and reward. Let’s take food as an example: When we get hungry (trigger), we look for food (behavior) and then we eat and feel satisfied (reward). After a while, however, the reward becomes so enticing that we no longer eat only when we’re hungry, but when we’re bored or stressed or tired. Before you know it, overeating becomes a habit that can be incredibly difficult to break.
Mindfulness is the tool we have been given to tap into this system to “hack” and rewire our brains so that we can address unwanted behaviors and overcome even the most difficult habits. When we pay attention to all aspects of our experience, we start to notice the push and pull of cravings in particular. Only then can we really see cravings for what they truly are: simple thoughts and feelings.
One of my favorite examples that shows just how powerful mindfulness can be is smoking cessation. In one study in my lab, smokers were given mindfulness training: They were taught breath awareness and how to pay attention to habit triggers and actions. In response, these smokers reported being more aware of why they smoked, what behaviors to substitute for smoking, and how disgusting cigarette smoke smelled and tasted when they just paid attention. We found that this mindfulness-based training was 5 times more effective than the gold standard treatment in helping people quit smoking. Mindfulness worked: The science speaks for itself.