How Mindfulness Positively Changes the Brain

How Mindfulness Positively Changes the Brain

If you've been anywhere on the Internet over the last decade, you've probably heard of the term "mindfulness". In an increasingly demanding Western society, it seems as though we're seeing a trend toward people seeking to 'de-stress' their busy lives.

What is mindfulness?

Various definitions of mindfulness exist, both technical and conceptual. According to the founder of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zin, "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally."

Pause. Think about that. How often do you truly pay attention to yourself or your surroundings in this way? Unless you're already someone who practices mindfulness, my guess is that it's not very often.

What can mindfulness teach us?

Imagine a life in which you carved out 10-30 minutes each day to observe yourself in this way. Rather than getting caught up and pulled away from your [biased] thoughts and feelings, you simply took the seat of an observer; You witnessed thoughts, feelings, and body sensations you're experiencing in the moment without judgment or spending copious amounts of energy trying to "fix it".

You turned towards those inner experiences with a sense of curiosity, compassion, and even embraced them. You noticed your environment more; the simplicities of what is pleasant and safe about the present moment. What kind of inner peace do you think that could bring for you? I suppose you'll have to try for yourself to really know!

In my clinical experience thus far, I've noticed that in peoples' pursuit of happiness - whether the goal is a specific job title, loving relationships, self-confidence, or financial security - often the hope is that achieving these goals will provide some variation of "inner peace". The great news is that mindfulness helps you experience inner peace on your way to achieving your goals.

A few common hesitations I've heard over the years when it comes to mindfulness practice include:

  • "I have no time."
  • "I forget."
  • "I'm bad at it."
  • "It's hard. I get frustrated."
  • "It's not fixing the problem."
  • "It's cheesy."
  • "I'm not spiritual."

All valid complaints, however, do any of these make it impossible? No. Much like anything, if you make it a priority, know why you're doing it, and address your barriers, anyone can do it.

Let me call out the elephant in the room: Mindfulness will not solve your problems directly. It doesn't have a voice or arms and legs. However, it can empower you to make an informed decision based on your values and clarify how to navigate difficult problems. It can also help you learn to let go.

What does the research say?

The literature has found that mindfulness practice can create physical changes to the brain (Riopel, 2019)!

Such changes include:

  • Increased brain density
  • Changes in thickness of brain tissue
  • Increased neurons, fibers, and glia in certain regions
  • Changes in cortical surface area
  • Changes in white matter fiber density

Impacted Areas

Poster (9)-min

Original image source: https://www.supercoloring.com/coloring-pages/human-brain-1

Disclaimer: brain areas are approximate.

Rostrolateral prefrontal cortex

  • Responsible [in part] for meta-awareness [or awareness of your thinking processes], processing complex information, and introspection.

Sensory cortices and insular cortex

  • Related to perception of tactile information, such as touch, pain, body sensations, and perception of body movement.

Hippocampus

  • Responsible for formation of memory and related to emotional responses.

Anterior cingulate cortex and mid-cingulate cortex

  • Linked with self-control, emotional regulation, and attention.

Superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum

  • Pathways for communication between left and rain brain hemispheres.

How much do I have to practice mindfulness to change my brain?

Different studies use different measures of mindfulness, so there's no perfect answer. While one study by Holzel and colleagues (2012) showed increases in gray matter density in areas that affected stress management, sense of self, empathy, and memory, we realize that meditating for 30 minutes per day over eight weeks may be an unrealistic ask for beginners.

Other research has shown improvements in mood, attention, working memory, recognition memory, and decreased state anxiety for meditating for only 13 minutes a day for eight weeks (Basso et al., 2018). Thus, aim for at least 10 minutes per day to see more immediate effects of stress management and present-moment awareness (Cuncic, 2021). Choose a time that you're likely to do it. Does that mean waking up 15 minutes earlier? Does it mean making it part of your bedtime routine? Be realistic with what could work for you.

If a short practice is more likely to make you consistent, then it will probably be more beneficial compared to a once-in-a-blue-moon 60-minute practice. It's like if you wanted big biceps and expected to get them after one heavy-weight gym session; it ain't happenin'. Consistency is key for mindfulness to transform the way you live.

Resources for Practice

Free

Subscription (but good)

  • Waking Up App
  • Calm App
  • Headspace App 

Common Misconceptions About Mindfulness and Corrective Feedback

  • Myth: Mindfulness is about relaxation or "clearing the mind."
    • Correction: Mindfulness is about paying attention in a particular way.
      • Interoception: focusing on inner experiences.
      • Exteroception: focusing on external environmental sights, sounds, or sensations
      • Sometimes you may notice discomfort. The goal is to be with the discomfort without trying to fix it, make it go away, or hold onto it. Just sit with it and observe it without judging it as "good" or "bad".
  • Myth: You're "not good at it" if you get distracted or feel frustrated or more anxious.
    • Correction: These experiences are common parts of the learning curve. It's the mind's nature to wander. It's normal to feel frustrated when your goal [of focus] is blocked. Simply notice these experiences and guide your attention back to the exercise, the breath, the body, or observing your thoughts and feelings.

Why Mindfulness Makes You Happier

When you engage in self-defeating thinking patterns, you're more likely to repeat them because you're strengthening those synapses in the brain. The good news is that neural pathways that lead to pleasant feelings can strengthen too (thanks, neuroplasticity). You can learn to make the voice inside your mind kinder and more empowering by practicing those kinds of uplifting thinking patterns.

"We are what we repeatedly do."

- Aristotle

References

  1. Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural brain research356, 208-220.
  2. Congleton, C., Holzel, B. K., & Lazar, S. W. (2015, January 8). Mindfulness can literally change your brain. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain#:~:text=Neuroscientists%20have%20also%20shown%20that,thinking%2C%20and%20sense%20of%20self
  3. Cuncic, A. (2021, November 30). How long should you meditate? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-long-should-you-meditate-5208166#:~:text=Although%20it%20is%20not%20an,making%20a%20difference%20for%20you
  4. Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., ... & Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews43, 48-73.
  5. Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research: neuroimaging191(1), 36-43.
  6. Huberman, A. (2022, October 21). How meditation works and science-based effective meditations. Huberman Lab [Video Podcast]. https://hubermanlab.com/how-meditation-works-and-science-based-effective-meditations/
  7. Lazar, S. W. (2005). Mindfulness research. Mindfulness and psychotherapy22, 220-238.
  8. Riopel, L. (2019, April 16). Mindfulness and the brain: What does neuroscience say? Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-brain-research-neuroscience/#benefits