A 2,500-year-old meditation practice is back in style, thanks to a renewed interest in mindfulness-based meditation as a way to relieve stress, boost productivity, and make people happier in their daily lives. But what about the science behind all that happiness? That is the focus of “Presence: How Mindfulness and Meditation Shape Your Brain, Mind, and Life,” a new book from Paul Verhaeghen, professor and director of graduate studies in the School of Psychology.
“An important part of why mindfulness has taken off so steeply in the past few years is that there is indeed accumulating scientific evidence that it works,” Verhaeghen says. “That may have led more people to try it, which may have led to more people liking it.”
In addition to its adoption by meditation and yoga enthusiasts, mindfulness-based meditation is used in a variety of industries and disciplines. Teachers employ it to help children concentrate better in class. The military has adopted its techniques to help soldiers focus in life-or-death situations, while executives have adopted mindfulness as a way to deal with the pressures of the business world. “Presence” (Oxford University Press) examines how mindfulness-based meditation changes the structure of the brain while affecting health, wellness, and self-esteem.
“Mindfulness is first and foremost a training of attention,” Verhaeghen says. “The main skill you learn when you practice mindfulness is to see where your mind actually is, moment-to-moment, and then relinquish whatever it is you're doing that you shouldn't be doing. This seems to have a lasting impact on brain structures that deal with this type of attention.”
Verhaeghen says evidence shows that mindfulness practice is as effective as standard therapies for treatment of depression and anxiety. “To me, the most surprising finding was that the effects are so broad, impacting almost every area of life,” he says.
In addition to summarizing the latest research on mindfulness-based meditation, Verhaeghen also uses that data in “Presence” to offer advice for those wishing to begin a meditation practice.
Verhaegen received his Ph.D. in 1994 from the University of Leuven in Belgium. He started at Georgia Tech in 2007. His research for the School of Psychology centers on cognitive aging, memory, and their interfaces, as well as the links between creativity, mood disorders, and rumination. He is also a long-term meditator and occasional mindfulness teacher.
Verhaegen published “The Elements of Cognitive Aging: Meta-Analyses of Age-Related Differences in Processing Speed and Their Consequences” (Oxford University Press) in 2014. Verhaegen also writes fiction; his 2004 novel “Omega Minor” has won awards for its Dutch and English versions.