by Carol Hendershot
Until just a few years ago, scientists believed that our brains stopped growing and changing in our mid-twenties. Then, new technologies were born. EEGs, PET Scans, and fMRIs gave us the ability to observe the inner workings of living breathing human brains and everything changed!
These amazing machines created a window into a brain that is constantly molding and remolding itself from birth to death. When we learn something new or train in a new skill our brains get bigger in areas that relate to that new knowledge. When we quit using certain areas of the brain they shrink. We now know that our brains respond to mental exercise the same way our muscles respond to physical exercise.
What happens in our brains when we practice mindfulness meditation?
With this new knowledge about the brain and so much evidence about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, neuroscientists wanted to know what was happening in the brain when we practice mindfulness.
Here is what they found.
In studies at Harvard, they found that mindfulness actually makes the prefrontal cortex grow. The prefrontal cortex is our very own CEO; it is the area of the brain that is responsible for planning, decision-making and emotion regulation, as well as coordinating activities between many other areas of the brain.
Further studies revealed that mindfulness shrinks the amygdala, the alarm center of the brain. When something happens, it is the amygdala that sends out the fight and flight signals to the rest of our body and is often a pre-curser to stress and anxiety. When the amygdala is down regulated we can more easily access our thinking, planning brain in a crisis and we also don’t react as strongly to that crisis in the first place.
Mindfulness also enlarges the hippocampus an area of the brain that plays a very important role in storing and strengthening our memories. It also acts as our internal GPS, helping us to navigate the world.
Functionally, they found that over time mindfulness practice actually shifts the processing of the brain from the more negative right prefrontal cortex to the more positive left prefrontal cortex.
In other words, we start to experience our lives with a more positive outlook.
What does all this mean to us?
The wonderful news is that we can intentionally shape our brain in many beneficial ways, in a relatively short period of time. Research has shown that in only three hours of cumulative meditation, focus and attention improve, and in just eleven hours, neuroscientists can actually see the physical changes in the brain.
That means that if you start today and invest only 10 minutes a day in dedicated practice, scientists could look inside your brain and see the physical changes in just a few weeks.
Powerful benefits are produced when we systematically harness our attention in this way.
Over thirty-five years of peer reviewed research has shown that mindfulness is an effective complement to medical treatments in such diverse conditions as:
- Chronic Pain
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Auto-immune Diseases
- And many others
In the mental health realm mindfulness has been shown to:
- Decrease stress
- Decrease depression
- Decrease anxiety
- Help with the symptoms of ADHD
- Be an effective treatment for substance abuse
There is also a growing body of evidence that mindfulness increases happiness, well-being, focus, attention, creativity and academic achievement.
The question is not whether your brain is changing. The question is whether you want to be the author of that process or an unwitting bystander?