What's mindfulness doing to our brains

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There has been debate in recent years over mindfulness and the actual impact it’s making. We’re not talking about being a kinder person or how we look at a tree and really “see” it for the first time. We’re talking about the scientific impact it can have on your brain.

What are we finding? Evidence consistently shows us that practising mindfulness changes the structure and function in parts of the brain associated with emotional control.

Behavioural studies have also been performed on experienced meditators. The results echo similar findings. When a mindfulness practice is in place, it helps with your ability to self-regulate emotion; and improves attention.

 

How Mindfulness Impacts the Brain

 

It’s still something of a mystery in the science world, figuring out exactly how the brain works. They know certain areas are responsible for certain functions like the frontal lobe is responsible for emotional expression, problem solving and memory.

While they know this, they’re still trying to piece it all together and figure out just how everything communicates and comes together to form thoughts and feelings.

Despite this, there’s growing evidence linking mindfulness to changes in the brain. Research shows mindfulness affects the production of chemicals that alter our mood.

The physiological reason is that breaths taken mindfully tend to be slow and deep, which stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It lowers stress, reduces you heart rate and blood pressure and calms you down. (Psychology Today)

 

When you’re mindful your breathing is regulated and deliberate, automatically activating chemical response in your brain, bringing about more clarity. Other studies show that connections between different brain regions begin to change when we’re in a state of mindfulness. 

 

Let’s take stress for example. One way mindfulness might help reduce stress is found in the growing body of neuroimaging research. This shows there’s an increase in connectivity in the brain regions linked to attention, emotional processing, emotional control and self-awareness. When you’re aware and  in control of your emotions, you’re more likely to recognise and manage your stressors before they get the better of you.

 

Neuroplasticity. Fancy word. Cool meaning.

Neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to physically re-wire itself. Again. Your brain has the capability to completely re-wire itself. Mind blowing. (pun intended). By changing your mindset through practises such as meditations, gratitude, showing kindness and being mindful… you cause change in your brain while more neural connections are being fired up.

When you are mindful or in meditation, that focus you use, amplifies neuroplasticity by stimulating and encouraging the release of neurochemicals. Here’s the science-y part. These neurochemicals enhance the structural growth of synaptic linkages among the activated neurons. What?

Basically, if you begin practising regular meditation, neural networks in your prefrontal cortex are strengthened and stabilised.

Breaking down the brain.

Here is a brief overview of 4 areas of your brain and how mindfulness impacts them.

The Cerebral Cortex is made up of tightly packed neurons and is the wrinkly, outermost layer that surrounds the brain. ... The cortex is divided into four different lobes, the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital, which are each responsible for processing different types of sensory information.

Studies show: A brief mindfulness meditation session is shown to be more effective than a nap in improving performance on tests that require concentration.
Article: “Mastering Your Own Mind” (2013)

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Amygdala is a region of the brain that determines how much stress you experience. It’s the reason we’re afraid of things that fall outside our control. It’s also responsible for the way we react to certain events that cause emotion or that we see as potentially threatening or dangerous.

Studies show: After eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training, overstressed businesspeople found that the size of the amygdala actually shrunk compared to those who were not practising mindfulness.
(Wilson 2013) Wilson, A. (May 16, 2013)

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The prefrontal cortex is the area in charge of activities like decision-making, regulating emotions and abstract planning. 

Studies show: Mindfulness meditation improves prefrontal cortex functioning and increases its activity.  
Article: “Mindfulness and the Brain” (2013)

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The anterior cingulate cortex is another area of the brain showing increased activity from a mindfulness practice.

Studies show: Greater emotional stability and less reactivity are benefits reported from the increased activation of this region of the brain.
(Wilson, 2013).

The future

As research continues we’re seeing mindfulness is having a greater impact on the brain than we previously understood. From the simple to the complicated and unexpected, we’re being shown that mindfulness really is re-wiring our brains, for the better.

 

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Re-wire your brain

The moment pebble is an exciting new tool to help you take short mindful breaks throughout your day. Using your pebble is really easy. You can do it any time, anywhere. All it takes is 30 seconds.

1. Turn your pebble over to make it glow and start your moment

2. Use a 30 second Moment Pebble script to relax your mind

3. The Pebble glows to end your moment and you return to your day refreshed

Find out more by visiting Moment Pebble.

 

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References/Resources

Neuroplasticity section
https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.ca/&httpsredir=1&article=3477&context=honors_theses

Cerebral Cortex
Mastering Your Own Mind. Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologtoday.com https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/200609/mastering-your-own-mind

Amygdala
(Wilson 2013) Wilson, A. (May 16, 2013). Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kripalu/mindfulness- meditation_b_3238677.html

Anterior Cingulate
Wilson, A. (May 16, 2013). Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mindfulness-meditation_n_3238677

Psychology Today
https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201109/changing-your-brain-changing-your-mind

Alex Strang