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Most people nowadays have heard of mindfulness. The simplest form of mindfulness is to breathe and to simply notice that it’s what you’re doing right now. So you might place your attention on what breathing feels like for you or notice what it sounds like. Here, you’re being mindful of your breathing, hence ‘mindfulness’.

What about kindfulness? Well, instead of focusing on your breath, you focus instead on kindness.

So you could focus on someone you know and reflect on some kind things they may have said or done, or think kindly of them where you might reflect on admirable aspects of their personality. Or you might instead recall some acts of kindness that you’ve experienced, witnessed, or even kind things you’ve done for others. You might even think of kind things people have said to you, or ways that they have supported you in the past or are supporting you now, in the present.

The immediate difference between mindfulness and kindfulness is the object of focus. With mindfulness it’s the breath, or the body, or sights and sounds if you’re doing a walking mindfulness meditation. With kindfulness, it’s kindness in any of its various forms.

But this difference in focus can lead to differences in how you feel as well as differences in the brain and body.

How Mindfulness and kindfulness impact the brain

Mindfulness ‘works out’ the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (forehead, above your eyes). This region is associated with concentration, working memory, planning, reasoning. These are known as executive functions – ones associated with self-control.

Kindfulness, on the other hand, works out regions associated with empathy, compassion, and happiness.

And just as working out a muscle makes it more powerful and, thus, things we use the muscle for become easier, something similar happens when we work out brain regions. They also become more powerful and things we use them for become easier.

For example, frequent mindfulness practice helps improve memory, attention, concentration and self-control. Frequent kindfulness practice, like the Tibetan Buddhist practice of metta (loving kindness) helps increase empathy, compassion, and happiness. With kindfulness practice, it becomes increasingly easier to extract moments of joy from the backdrop of everyday events in our lives.

Benefits of Kindfulness

Kindfulness has many other effects. Studies show that metta practice increases ‘vagal tone’. Akin to muscle tone, which reflects the health and fitness of muscles, vagal tone describes the health and fitness of the vagus nerve, which is a major component of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS (autonomic nervous system). This is the branch that controls rest and digest. A higher vagal tone generally means greater dominance of parasympathetic activity over sympathetic activity (fight or flight).

The reason that kindfulness practices impact the vagus nerve in this way is due to the role that the vagus nerve plays in compassion. Dacher Keltner, Berkley professor of psychology and author of ‘Born to be Good’ refers to it as the ‘nerve of compassion’, in that people who have high resting vagal tone tend to be highly compassionate and show a tendency towards altruistic behaviour. It’s a two-way street: kindness and compassion increase vagal tone and high vagal tone begets compassion and kindness.

The vagus nerve also plays a role in inflammation. Known as the inflammatory reflex, the vagus nerve sends signals to some genes that govern inflammation to turn down, just as one might turn down the dimmer switch of a light that was too bright.

High vagal tone is associated with lower inflammation levels. A study on people practicing metta showed that they had a much lower inflammatory response to stress than non-practitioners, presumably due to increased vagal tone due to the practice.

And in a meta analysis of studies involving 1,822 cancer patients, published in the Journal of Oncology in 2018, higher vagal tone was found to be associated with better prognosis. Significantly, the study found that survival time in patients with high vagal tone was significantly longer than it was in patients with low vagal tone. The authors reported that “the evidence supports a protective role of the vagus nerve in cancer.”

They wrote that it was likely that the anti-inflammatory effect induced by higher vagal tone, as well as inhibition of sympathetic (stress) activity, helped support health in late-stage cancer patients at a time when active treatment was no longer effective. They wrote that “the vagus nerve may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

Of course, kindfulness is not the only way to increase vagal tone. Exercise helps too, which is likely to be one of the reasons why exercise also improves cancer prognosis. Occasional cold temperatures, deep meditative breathing, and even singing also increase vagal tone. There are others too. But kindfulness certainly helps.

To summarise, then. Kindfulness impacts brain circuits, boosting empathy, compassion, and joy. It also increases vagal tone, which is known to counter stress, reduce inflammation, and even play a protective role in cancer progression. There are other effects too, which I’ll follow up on in another blog.

So kindness is much more than the things that we say or do. These are its social aspects. Kindness can be in how we use our minds, in what and who we focus upon. The feelings induced go inward, affecting our mental and physical health. These are some of the side effects of kindness (you can read more in my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’, and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’ (illustrated version)). 

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