The Neuroscience of Mindfulness [How meditation benefits your brain]

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness [How meditation benefits your brain]

Reading Time: 7 minutes

There are over 1.5 billion Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of Jainism in the world. Many of whom practice Meditation (Dhyana). Add to that, Western practitioners of Yoga and mindfulness. There’s a reasonable probability, over 20% of the world’s population practice meditation.

Mindfulness meditation in the west has grown at an exponential rate in the last few years. A slew of meditation apps has flooded the market. Additionally, mindfulness meditation centers have tripled in a decade.

Cynics may look at mindfulness as a fad that will fade. Yet, mental health issues are on the rise globally. Political hatred, climate change, terrorism, and crime, don’t help. The topping on the cake, a pandemic that’s shaken the humanity to its boots, as governments claw to regain control. Global change has changed our lives to the extreme.

Drug companies are profiting from antidepressants, and doctors are quick to write prescriptions. Supermarkets might as well place anxiety medication next to the fruit and veggies. Is it right that over 12% of the US population over the age of 12, is on mental health medication, and climbing? An apparent global trend, many are turning to recreational drugs and alcohol, to numb anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness meditation is not a cure on its own for anxiety or depression,  but it can go along way to help in managing stress. Talking with family and friends and consulting with professional health carers is essential. Exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep also help. Occupying yourself with a meaningful purpose is critical. What mindfulness can do is provide mental space to better handle what life throws at you.

What is Mindfulness?

A standard definition of mindfulness is being aware of what’s going on in the present moment. More accurately, mindfulness is the focused observation of change in what you perceive as the present moment.

In reality, change is going on all the time. As soon as you say now, it’s already in the past. At a quantum level, we all live in a continuous flow of changing events. Our perspective of change is a ‘blur’ of what’s happening on a quantum level. If you stare at a point on the wall, it looks static. You can’t see any change going on. On an atomic level, electrons are buzzing around all the time.

The second important point is that your observation of changing events is relative to your personal experience. What’s happening ‘right now’ for someone else is not the same as what’s happening to you. We all have a different perspective on things. That’s why compassion and listening to other’s perspectives so important. If we want to gain a complete picture in life, we have no choice but to listen to different points of view.

In practice, mindfulness meditation starts with training your mind to focus on your breathing, a continuously changing process of inhalation and exhalation. During meditation, you concentrate on your breathing in precise detail. As you try to focus, you soon become aware of the thoughts and emotions that arise.

As you expand the scope of your attention, you become conscious of the sites and sounds of the world around you. This state of conscious awareness enables you to experience life to the fullest. It’s a feeling of connected oneness with life.

Thoughts and feelings come and go. They go hand in hand and are temporary. Mindfulness gives you the power to choose which thoughts and feelings to engage. Practicing meditation develops the skill of creating mental space. By observing your thoughts and feelings that arise, you create a buffer. As thoughts and feelings are temporary, you can choose to act upon them, or not.

Mental space gives you the power of choosing when and how to act. Mindfulness is a way to not be impulsive. Not necessarily reaching for the chocolate, when someone offers you one. Not being compulsive by letting your anger get hold of you when someone pushes your button. In short, mindfulness prevents you from being reactive.

” I paint, as a matter of fact, to stop thinking. I stop thinking, and I feel that I’m a part of everything outside and inside of me.”

Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh in the film Eternity’s Gate

If you’ve never meditated before, try it

Try meditating for 3 minutes…
Take a moment to find a comfortable position, sitting on a chair or cushion. Keep a posture that is alert and yet at ease. Close your eyes, and notice any points of contact between your body and chair or cushion. Feel the pull of gravity. Let your spine lengthen and grow tall. Relax your face, shoulders and your body.

As a way to anchor your attention, bring your attention to your natural breath. Concentrate where the breath feels the strongest— where the air passes your nostrils, or perhaps, the rise and fall of your lungs. Don’t think about your breath; observe it. Feel it in precise detail.

Hold your attention on the feeling of the breath as you inhale and exhale. As you inhale, drink in the breath in. Upon your exhale, feel your body settle.

As you become aware your thoughts going astray, gently bring them back to your attention of the breath.

This is the practice of mindfulness. Becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings. Bringing your attention back to the present moment of focus on your breathing.

See how your mind, goes astray. It’s quite hard to stay focused. It’s not so much about preventing yourself from thinking. Mindfulness is more about observing when your mind goes astray. The essential point is not to become agitated as thoughts arise. Gently return your attention to your breath, with compassion and patience.

The regular practice of meditation enables you to call upon mindfulness at will. As you engage with your experiences throughout the day, mindfulness gives you control.

The practice of meditation calms the mind. Over time, you become less erratic and more connected with the world around you. Your focus is on the hear and now. You are aware of thoughts that arise as if someone is speaking inside your head.

You are aware, but it’s not necessary to reciprocate, adopting the thoughts and feelings as our own. The practice of mindfulness gives you the power to choose how to respond to life without compulsive behavior..

The neuroscience of mindfulness

Mindfulness is a brain training exercise. Through practice, mindfulness changes the structure and function of the brain—the regions responsible for regulating attention, emotions, and self-awareness.

MRI studies show that when we are daydreaming, certain areas of the brain are more active. Most people spend 45% of their time daydreaming. A state neuroscientists call the Default Mode Network (DMN). This region of the brain is self-referential. It’s responsible for reflection and planning, related to depression and anxiety.

The DMN part of the brain deals with the past and future, ignoring current changes happening now. If you allow this part of the brain to dominate your time, you end up ruminating. It can be destructive and immobilizes you. What you should be doing is managing your response to events as they occur now.

Being active reduces anxiety and depression

The Task-Positive Network (TPN) regions of the brain are active when you focus on something. When this area is active, there is no ruminating. There is no past or future, only awareness of changes happening now in front of you.

Only one of these systems, DMN or TPN, can be active at any one time. By being present in the moment, you can leave depression behind. By practicing mindfulness, you activate the TPN part of the brain.

That’s why physical activity, sports, and exercise complement meditation. They go hand in hand. Both bring attention to your breathing and the sensations of the body, compelling you to act here and now. Both have a positive effect on the brain.

“Physical changes occur in your brain with regular mindfulness practice.”

Dr. Meera Joshi, BUPA,UK

Images of the synaptic connections morph as the brain engages in meditation. You can find the Amygdala deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. The Amygdala handles the fight or flight response to perceived environmental threats. When experiencing stress, the Amygdala is more active. The regular practice of mindfulness reduces the size of the Amygdala.

Studies have bee carried out on Buddhist monks practicing life-long mediation. These monks develop robust connections between different parts of the brain. The extent of these connections synchronizes communication between different regions. Each region is responsible for various functions.

The brain’s pre-frontal cortex handles the planning. It is also responsible for complex cognitive behavior. These functions include personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Meditation has shown to increase the density and strengthening of this area of the brain.

Regular meditation also develops the size of the hippocampus, responsible for memory. Meditation counteracts shrinkage of the brain that occurs through aging.

Fifteen minutes of meditation a day sharpens the mind, improving attention and memory. People that have meditated all their lives can concentrate and hold their attention. Even better than younger people that don’t meditate.

Regular meditation also strengthens the immune system, helping to fight infection. Mindfulness experts have reported feeling less physical pain. What’s interesting is that the areas of the brain associated with pain don’t shrink. Instead, the regions associated with emotion and memory are less active. The connectivity between the areas of pain and emotional memory is less active. By not drawing on memories of pain, the experts were able to feel less pain.

Our health institutions support mindfulness

Further resources on Mindfulness Meditation:

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends mindfulness meditation as a way to prevent depression.

“Meditation may physically change the brain and body and could potentially help to improve many health problems and promote healthy behaviors.”

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH)

The National Health Service in Great Britain promotes mindfulness as an integrated aid in managing mental and physical health. The NHS even offers an interactive Mood self-assessment questionnaire.

If you haven’t tried mindfulness meditation before, and not sure what to do, try downloading and app to your phone. For many, it has changed their lives forever. Personally, I use Calm. But there are several apps to choose from. Pick one that’s right for you. Whatever you do, don’t get stressed about having the perfect experience. It takes patience and practice. Go in peace and health, and have a great day.