How Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain
Mindfulness occurs when your mind is at peace with what is present and you fully conscious of what is going on around you. Similar to meditation, mindfulness can change your brain in extremely positive ways. New research done in neuroplasticity, or how the brain changes and grows over time, shows that mindfulness is a key component in soothing your brain so that you are more calm, less stressed, and have better attention. Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have been doing ongoing studies of the importance of mindfulness for your brain’s stability. But, how exactly can mindfulness change your brain? Read below to find out more!
Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain Regions
An interesting study today has looked at how meditative practices can actually change the structure of your brain. Neuroscientists have shown that some of the regions of the brain of those who meditate regularly are different than those of people who don’t meditate. These changes can even occur in as little as eight weeks of practicing meditation! Meditation practice is associated with key changes in specific brain areas essential for attention, learning, and regulating emotions. This shouldn’t be a surprise if you think of exercising your brain like working out in a brain gym. Of course, with more physical exercise, your body is certainly to improve in your physique, and the same can be said with your brain!
Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist researcher, performed MRI (multiple resonance imaging) scans on twenty meditators in the Boston region, and compared their scans to those of twenty non-meditators. She found that the brain’s cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of tissue that surrounds the brain, was much more thicker for the meditators than for the non-meditators. It should be noted that the cortex gradually deteriorates, or atrophies, with age. However, since Lazar’s study also included participants from wide ranges of age, she also found that the cortex of elderly meditators was just as thick as the cortex of adolescent non-meditators.
In Germany, neuroscientist Britta Holzel found additional regions hidden deeply within the brain that had increased in gray matter density for meditators as compared to non-meditators. Gray matter is the part of the brain that holds most of the actual brain cells. Therefore, its increased density suggests an increase in connectivity between the cells.
Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain Functions
According to Sara Lazar, mindfulness has a dramatic impact on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the major region responsible for all of your higher-ordered thinking skills. From the research, those who meditate report significantly higher levels of cognitive functioning than those who do not. This includes the ability to plan, make decisions, and keep you out of trouble by following socially appropriate behavior. Also, meditators have increased potential to hold two concepts or experiences in their minds simultaneously, which allows them to compare and evaluate plans, ideas, and memories with much more accuracy than those who do not meditate.
Lazar has also identified the insula as another major region affected by mindfulness practices. The insula integrates sensation and emotion together – specifically social emotions such as empathy and love. Many scholars reason that the insula is essential for your self-awareness capacity, meaning that it plays a role in helping you determine who you exactly are as a person.
Britta Holzel found that the amygdala is greatly affected by performing meditation. For those who perform meditation, they engage in a task called “shifting perspective” much more readily than those who are non-meditators. Shifting perspective is the ability to take the perspective of another in a calm and collective way. This helps with skills like empathy, where you are able to whole-heartedly relate to the experiences of those around you, and management of emotional upheavals (when you step out of control for reactivity). Being a more aware and observant witness to the issues of others while not immediately reacting to negative circumstances is a central component of meditation. Constantly, you are forced to practice shifting perspective as you leave a dreamy non-awareness of the world to a vivid understanding of the present moment.
From a Harvard study performed on how mindfulness can affect the brain, here are some other regions that change drastically due to meditation:
- Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (ACG) – the ACG is associated with self-regulation (the ability to purposefully direct your attention and behavior), suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies with ease. Meditators demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators.
- Hippocampus – this is a set of structures within the limbic system (read more about the functions of your limbic system) that are associated with emotion and memory. It is lined with receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, so chronic stress can damage it. People with stress-related disorders like PTSD and depression usually have smaller hippocampi than normal. Meditation regulates stress by forcing participants to lose their worries and live in the present. This practice helps to keep your hippocampus healthy, without risk of deterioration, so that you are able to regulate emotions and tolerant pain with more acceptance.
Mindfulness Can Improve Your Attention Span
Keeping control over your attention span is central to meditation. Many do not realize how difficult it is to master your attention, but once you try meditating, you understand the infinite distractions that your mind is gravitated toward around you. Researcher Amishi Jha, from the National Institute of Health, has conducted multiple studies on the effects mindfulness can have on your attention span. After only eight weeks of training in meditation, participants could intentionally direct and focus their attention more quickly than a matched group of untrained students. Both the experienced group and the control group were taken on a group meditation retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. Jha found that the experienced meditators increased in their levels of awareness, had substantially less mental wandering, and developed more insight into distractions when they occurred than those who were non-meditators.
Other testing from Jha’s lab demonstrated that meditation improves working (similar to short-term memory) memory along with the ability to resist distractions. She found that even very short increments of regular meditation practice daily are associated with significant improvements in working memory. This is a significant finding because meditation has the potential for improving our ability to accomplish our goals in everyday life.
Mindfulness Can Change How You Experience Your “Self”
There are two distinct neural networks located in the brain that contribute to the experience of a “self.” Activity in one region is associated with your descriptive self: thoughts about what is happening and how you are. The other region deals with a more direct experience of sensation and emotion in the present moment. When both are combined together, they activate storytelling processes that help you to verbally and mentally recount past events that took place.
Researchers at the University of Toronto studied how mindfulness can affect this region by having participants employ different types of focus in referring to themselves while either meditating or not meditating. The two focus types are: “narrative focus,” which calls for elaborating mental constructs in our minds as stories without any direct, sensory connection; and “experiential focus,” which is stopping yourself from physically detailing a story to recounting your feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations as a way to tell what occurred. The study showed that participants who engaged in meditation recounted past events with more “experiential focus,” than those who were non-meditators (they reported “narrative focus” for storytelling skills). Meditation practice enhances the ability to disconnect the two regions of the self and engage in more experiental focus, so that you are not living your life in terms of an onlooking story, but rather as someone within that story, living and feeling as a character internally affected by the events that took place.
Mindfulness Can Reduce Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center”
A study at Yale University found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the DMN (default mode network), a series of neural networks in the brain that are responsible for self-referential thoughts. The DMN is typically “on” when our minds are idle – when we’re not thinking of anything in particular – so it causes us to just think about ourselves. Mind-wandering and lone self thoughts in the DMS are usually linked to people being less happy and worrying about the past and future. Therefore, it’s an important goal for many people who suffer from severe stress to tone down their DMN with meditation practices. Even when the mind does begin to wander, meditators are able to snap out of it more quickly than non-meditators.
For further reading on how mindfulness can change your brain, check out these interesting books:
The Mindful Brain by Daniel J. Siegel
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn