The word “mindfulness”, derived from the word “sati” in the Pali language formerly spoken in India, represents a concept that can primarily be defined as the capacity to be conscious and to be focused on the present, the here and now.
Human beings tend to give importance, to pay attention and to think about things that happened in the past, or to project themselves into the future, thereby losing their perception of what is happening in the present. Mindfulness allows us to increase our awareness of the present, without judging it and thus helping ourselves to accept it more actively.
The attitude that is achieved with this practice allows us to distance ourselves from thoughts about how to avoid future suffering or thoughts about how to get through present moments that are causing us distress.
Mindfulness and stress reduction
Although its origins are related to a typically Eastern religious and spiritual tradition like Buddhism, in the last 30 years this technique has become part of Western clinical practice, particularly in the psychological practice.
Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts (USA) was one of the pioneers in the use of this technique for reducing stress and promoting mental health in Western culture.
From the initial use of mindfulness in the stress reduction therapy known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR), in recent years this and other related mindfulness and meditation techniques have been applied effectively in the cure of chronic pain, substance abuse and insomnia, and in the treatment of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as improving the quality of life of other patients.
These very varied and complex techniques have been proven to be useful not only in clinical populations, but also in the reduction of stress and depressive and anxious symptomatology in healthy populations.
Psychological and neurobiological benefits
Recently, three main components have been identified as the basis of the psychological and neurobiological benefits of mindfulness: improved attention control, improved emotional regulation and improved self-awareness. In fact, the changes in these three areas occur both psychologically and within the brain, resulting in a better functioning of the underlying networks.
In more recent years, a growing number of investigations have also studied the effect of different mindfulness and meditation techniques on cognition and cognitive decline related to aging.
The results of several articles published in international scientific journals suggest that mindfulness can help to improve different cognitive functions, including attention, memory and executive functions.
In addition, some neuroimaging studies have revealed how mindfulness can improve the functioning and structure of parts of the brain considered important for cognition.
Delay in cognitive decline
Recent reviews of the literature on the effects of these techniques on cognition and cognitive decline show that, despite the limitations of the studies analyzed and the sometimes contradictory results, there is preliminary evidence that meditation and mindfulness could delay cognitive decline and even improve some cognitive function in older people.
Furthermore, these studies show that it is never too late to learn these techniques since they can be learned at any age, including in old age.