Education

Russell Stannard: Mindfulness and Meditation in Education

Meditation is very much about clearing the mind and making our thoughts ‘light’.  Training normally involves focusing on breathing and learning not to focus on your thoughts. So your thoughts become like passing cars, they enter your brain but quickly pass by and with time they pass by less frequently as you learn to calm the mind.

Mindfulness tries to focus our mind on the present. So again it is about training the mind to focus and each time our mind wanders, we bring our attention back to the present.  However, you will also see it used in a broader way. So for example ‘Mindfulness Training’ might include exercises where you bring certain thoughts to the fore. So, for example, spending 5 minutes each day thinking about 10 things you are really grateful for would be an example of mindfulness, thinking about the feelings you get when you are with someone you love and care about, would be another example.

So meditation is about learning to pay less and less attention to things whereas mindfulness is about putting our attention on something, ie the present or paying attention to someone specific. Both types of activities lead to increased focus and there is a lot of crossover in the literature. In this post, we are going to focus more on the role of mindfulness.

Why are these topics so popular?

Research in Science doesn’t come out of a vacuum. There is a whole range of reasons why both mindfulness and meditation have become areas of interest. Let’s just consider a few.

  • One of the most interesting reasons is perhaps the research into the elasticity of the brain. Scientists used to think that after a certain age, our brain was fixed ie it didn’t grow or create new pathways. What we now know is the complete opposite. The brain is changing all the time. In fact, we are continually creating new neural pathways and new connections. Everything we think or experience either creates a new neural pathway or reinforces a pathway that already exists.  So our thoughts actually create our brain.
  • Closely related to this is the recent ability to use technology to scan the brain and understand more about what is happening in the brain when we go about our daily activities. So scientists have scanned the brain while individuals practice mindfulness or meditation and noticed big changes.
  • Scientists have turned to the east to look for solutions to problems such as stress, depression, and hyperactivity. The number of people taking pills for depression, stress and related areas has risen rapidly in the past 30 years and so scientists have looked to holistic solutions like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

There are many other reasons but these are perhaps some of the main drivers for this huge interest in both topics.

Research

You always have to be careful with research. Journals don’t like to publish research that didn’t discover any change or something new. So we have to be a bit sceptical when considering what the research has revealed because there could have been many pieces of research that showed no impact, and those are very unlikely to be published. Having said that,  there does seem to be a growing body of research and anecdote that suggest that both meditation and mindfulness can have an impact on our lives. I have read a fair number of these studies, some are almost ‘too good to be true’ but it has certainly got me interested in the field.

Research into mindfulness

Studies often include interventions where participants are expected to undertake a programme of mindfulness training which helps to raise their awareness of certain aspects of their lives. The results of this heightened awareness often lead to feelings of well being etc.  For example in a study where participants had to do a series of ‘happiness training exercises’ over a period of 7 weeks, which included mindfulness, the participants found they felt happier and had less stress and the results even continued after the training was stopped [1].

What Scientists are now beginning to realise of course is that this is no accident. Each time the participants were thinking about positive elements in their lives they were actually building the neural networks in their brain. The more they thought about positive things, the stronger these neural networks became ( in other words your brain becomes what you think and do).

One big question is how long it takes to build these neural networks. Research into the impact of mindfulness training and very recent analysis of brain activity, while mindfulness training is taking place suggests that this may happen much quicker than first thought.

Mindfulness and Education

The interest in mindfulness and education is more recent. In a now-famous study [2] at Harvard University it was found that 47% of the time people’s minds were wandering and that they were not actually paying attention to what they were doing. This obviously has huge implications in terms of learning since 47% of the time our students are possibly not paying attention. Researchers began to ask how they could help people to be more focused on the present and pay more attention.

What is beginning to
emerge from the research is interesting:

  • Mindfulness has
    been shown to improve concentration. Students are able to study for longer
    periods of time and are more focused.
  • Students going
    through mindfulness training have increased levels of determination and
    willpower, they are less likely to give up if they find something difficult
    (something we talked about in the previous blog post on willpower)
  • Studies have
    shown that practicing mindfulness can lead to reduced levels of anxiety and
    stress. This can be helpful when students have high-stake exams and stressful
    study periods[3].

Just like in the previously mentioned studies about happiness, Scientists are beginning to actually understand what is happening.  Mindfulness exercises shrink the amygdala which is the central part of the brain that often leads to us being distracted (this part of the brain is often referred to as the fight or flight area of the brain, it is often associated with impulses but is vital in moments of danger). At the same time as shrinking the amygdala, it thickens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the area that controls focus and concentration.

Should I teach mindfulness?

I have been
practicing mindfulness for about 5 years now and in the last year or so it has
actually become a part of my daily routine. My initial recommendation would be
to consider bringing it into your own life and seeing what benefits it might
bring. I have definitely seen a big increase in my ability to focus and I am
much more aware of my mind and stopping it from wandering. When I lose
attention, I quickly become aware of it and bring my mind back to the present.

As far as
students are concerned, a growing number of schools are introducing mindfulness
training into their educational programmes. I was recently in the USA, I had
the chance to talk to a number of students who undergo mindfulness training.
There is a whole range of mindfulness programmes going on in primary schools
right up to university level and you might be interested to find out what they
are doing [4].

 I have personally not done any training with my students, however, I have sometimes done mini-talks with my students on some of the key research findings and students seem to find it fascinating. Indeed I have been surprised to see that some of my students were even aware of some of the research I had talked bout.

References

 [1] Mindfulness and happiness.

http://downloads.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/676953.pdf

[2] Research into the wandering mind

[3] Summary
of mindfulness research.

http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/marc-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf

[4] Some of
the school programmes are hightlighted here.

http://www.stillquietplace.com/

YouTube Videos

Mindfulness in Education

Students talking about their experience of
mindfulness

Photo by nicollazzi xiong from Pexels

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