What Happens to the Brain During Mindfulness?

What Happens to the Brain During Mindfulness?

The human brain contains hundreds of trillions of synapses which allow brain cells to communicate with each other. The brain also contains between 80 and 100 billion neurons, which help form our personality information highway.

Over the past few decades, we have learned a great deal about how the human brain. Yet, this information is only the tip of a massive iceberg that is the full capacity and potential of the brain. Despite the latest advances in technology and modern neuroscience, the actual ability of the brain remains one of the most fascinating mysteries of the human body. 

 

What is Mindfulness?

Chances are you’ve heard about mindfulness or mindful meditation. It appears that everyone from children to corporate executives have been embracing the practice in recent years. Mindfulness is a kind of mental exercise for your brain. Based on meditation, mindfulness is designed to help you stay focused on the present moment. 

Being present in the moment is not only very empowering, but it’s also very healthy. When we are present, we are able to focus our awareness on the here and now. Being present means embracing every moment of the day and not stressing about what may occur later. While living in the present moment can be transformative, scientists often wonder what impact mindfulness has on the brain. What actually happens to our brains when we practice mindfulness regularly? 

The latest research conducted by Harvard Medical indicates mindfulness and meditation has the power to physically change our brain.

 

Can Mindful Meditation Physically Alter the Brain

Prior to the introduction of Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) into clinical practice in the 1980s, scientists were only able to study animal brains. MRI’s resulted in extraordinary scientific advancements, particularly in the areas of neuroscience. Since then, researchers have been able to measure the changes and activity in the individual parts of human brains.

Neuroscientist  Sara Lazar, of Harvard Medical School, applies MRI technology to examine detailed brain structures to understand what is happening to the brain while a person is completing a specific task, including meditation and yoga. Data suggests that distinct regions of the brain may either grow or shrink in response to regular mindfulness exercises.

Lazar conducted two studies to determine the impact of mindfulness on the brain. In her first study, she studied people with comprehensive meditation experience. The study included focused attention on internal experiences (without chanting or mantras). The data determined consistent meditation might help to prevent or slow down the natural age-related thinning of the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex of the brain is responsible for the formation of memories. While most people accept that we tend to forget things as we age, Lazar and her team determined that participants who practiced meditation in their 40’s and 50’s had the same amount of grey matter as those in their 20’s and 30’s.

In Lazar’s second study, she observed the brain scans of individuals who had never meditated before. These individuals participated in a weekly mindfulness-based stress reduction training program. Participants also engaged in various daily mindfulness exercises, including mindful yoga, sitting meditation, and a body scan practice (between 30-40 minutes every day).

Throughout the course of the study, Lazar tested the participants for the positive impacts that mindful meditation might present on psychological well-being. In addition to physical changes in the brain, she was also interested in observing the effect of mindfulness to help people relieve symptoms of insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.

At the end of the 8-week study, brain volume had increased in 4 regions of the brain. The most significant regions included:

  • The Hippocampus: a seahorse-shaped structure in the brain responsible for learning, spatial orientation, storage of memories, and emotional regulation.
  • The Temporoparietal Junction: the area of the brain where the parietal and temporal lobes meet. This area of the brain is responsible for compassion and empathy.

 

Additionally, images revealed the amygdala region of the brain decreased. The amygdala is responsible for our fight-or-flight response (our reaction to threats). Essentially, the smaller this region of the brain becomes, the better our reactions to stress. According to the study, the decrease in the brain’s grey matter directly correlates with the changes in stress levels.

 

The Brain Workshop

By combining mindfulness and meditation, we can begin to fully understand how our thoughts, emotions, and feelings affect not only our lives but also the physical makeup of our brain. Mindfulness and meditation are small steps we can take to promote a happier, calmer, and healthier way of life.

At the Brain Workshop, we are dedicated to helping individuals reach their fullest learning potential by leveraging powerful cognitive skills, and testing and training tools that can literally transform learning weaknesses into strengths. 

Contact a member of our team to learn more.

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The Brain Workshop

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