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Mastering The Mind: The Science Behind Mind-Focusing Practices

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

Hiking is walking meditation

Journaling is writing meditation

Praying is gratitude meditation

Showering is accidental meditation

Sitting quietly is direct mediation

-Naval Ravikant

Mind-focusing practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, biofeedback, mantra repetition, scripture repetition, mindfulness, and gratitude practices, have become commonplace in our culture over the past several decades. We are frequented by posts telling us how important it is to find time to sit quietly and focus our minds but why is it so important? Aside from the 2+ millennia of empirical data collected by countless barefoot scientists* about the many benefits of sitting quietly and focusing our minds, there is a growing body of modern scientific literature expanding our understanding of how important it is to include these practices in our daily lives. Below is a collection of some of the many benefits that come from such daily mindful practices:

o Traditional Understanding: Meditation improves digestive function, balance our microbiome, and improve immune function.

  • Modern scientific studies show that practicing meditation helps to decrease sympathetic nervous system activity benefiting the digestive system and helping to reestablish a healthier microbiome. A healthy microbiome helps improve the integrity of the lining of the gut which is vital to reducing inflammation and enhancing immune function.

o Traditional Understanding: Mind-focusing practices improves emotional stability.

  • Modern scientific studies show that when we focus our minds during meditation and breathing exercises, we activate the prefrontal cortex of our brain. This is the part of our brain that acts rationally allowing us to react to stimuli with control and grace. When we focus our minds, we increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex increasing oxygen and nutrients to this region of the brain. In fact, this area has been shown to grow larger in 8 weeks with 10 minutes of daily mind-focusing practice!

  • Studies also show that mind-focusing practices shrink the amygdala. This part of our brain is on autopilot, reacting to stimuli without our conscious input, and often results in poor responses that leave us feeling ashamed of our behavior. During mind-focusing practices, blood flow is redirected to the prefrontal cortex, decreasing flow to the amygdala effectively shrinking this part of the brain while increasing resources to the prefrontal cortex enabling greater control over our reactions both emotional and physical.

o When we practice breathing deeply and steadily, we help to modulate between the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems creating a balance between activity and relaxation.

  • Modern scientific research shows that focused breathing exercises regulate our autonomic nervous system (ANS): The two branches of the ANS are the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). These two opposing branches are connected to most of our organs through the Vagus Nerve. This nerve is also known as Cranial Nerve 10 (CNX) which extends from the brain and travels to the face and down through the chest and abdomen extending into many of the vital organs such as the heart, lungs, pancreas, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, bladder, kidneys, resulting in direct communication and subconscious control over these organs.

  • Elongated exhales stimulate the PNS, the part of our ANS commonly known as the ‘rest-and-digest’ system. When this system is activated our body relaxes activating our digestive system, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, opening the lungs, relaxing muscle tension, and calming the mind. These breathing exercises are important to practice daily during times of prolonged stress to help calm and reset the ANS.

  • Extended inhales stimulate the SNS, the part of our ANS commonly known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ system. This system is important to keep us alert and focused. When this system is activated blood is diverted from the digestive system into the musculature and brain. These breathing exercises are helpful when feeling depressed, unmotivated, or unfocused.

*Barefoot Scientists: A name I have lovingly given to the countless scientists who came before us, our ancestors. Those who hypothesized about the body and health, those who conducted experiments to verify those hypotheses, who collected data, and used that data to improve healthcare and medical treatment for their patients and future generations.

Relevant Studies:

  1. Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Breathe in deeply to a count of four and out again slowly. There. Don't you feel calmer?.Harv Women's Health Watch. 2006;13(12):6-7

  2. Bonaz B, Sinniger V, Pellissier S. Vagal tone: effects on sensitivity, motility, and inflammation.Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2016;28(4):455-462. doi:10.1111/nmo.12817

  3. Bonaz B, Sinniger V, Pellissier S. The Vagus Nerve in the Neuro-Immune Axis: Implications in the Pathology of the Gastrointestinal Tract.Front Immunol. 2017;8:1452. Published 2017 Nov 2. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.01452

  4. Bonaz B, Sinniger V, Pellissier S. Anti-inflammatory properties of the vagus nerve: potential therapeutic implications of vagus nerve stimulation.J Physiol. 2016;594(20):5781-5790. doi:10.1113/JP271539

  5. Courtney R, Cohen M, van Dixhoorn J. Relationship between dysfunctional breathing patterns and ability to achieve target heart rate variability with features of "coherence" during biofeedback.Altern Ther Health Med. 2011;17(3):38-44

  6. González-Valero G, Zurita-Ortega F, Ubago-Jiménez JL, Puertas-Molero P. Use of Meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapies for the Treatment of Stress, Depression and Anxiety in Students. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(22):4394. Published 2019 Nov 10. doi:10.3390/ijerph16224394

  7. Heckenberg RA, Eddy P, Kent S, Wright BJ. Do workplace-based mindfulness meditation programs improve physiological indices of stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis.J Psychosom Res. 2018;114:62-71. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2018.09.010

  8. Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, Chopra D. The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics.Adv Mind Body Med. 2017;31(4):10-25

  9. Perciavalle V, Blandini M, Fecarotta P, et al. The role of deep breathing on stress.Neurol Sci. 2017;38(3):451-458. doi:10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8

  10. Zhang Z, Wang B, Wu H, Chai X, Wang W, Peng CK. Effects of slow and regular breathing exercise on cardiopulmonary coupling and blood pressure.Med Biol Eng Comput. 2017;55(2):327-341. doi:10.1007/s11517-016-1517-6

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