Mindfulness Meditation: What Are the Benefits for Your Brain?

One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself. ― Daniel J. Siegel

Once upon a time, prehistoric human beings lived in the wild, where they often encountered life-threatening dangers. To ensure their survival they needed to be able to react quickly. During this time our brain structures developed. Have you ever wondered what happens in the brain when we face a threat? An internal part, called amygdala, immediately responds by releasing cortisol in the blood, which causes a stress response, called fight, flight or freeze. This means that whenever we perceive a danger we react by either being aggressive, escaping or being paralyzed. During prehistoric times, our brain developed also a negative bias, namely a tendency to remember more likely unpleasant experiences. This was also important for our survival, since it gave us the ability to predict dangerous situations.

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones — Rick Hanson

This defense system worked perfectly fine for prehistoric human beings, since they had to deal often with life-threatening dangers. Unfortunately these survival strategies are not optimal anymore in our modern life. In fact, even though most of the times our perceived threats are only psychological, the stress response of the brain is exactly the same. Whether we face an imaginary fear or a real danger, we react by fighting, flying or freezing. Moreover, our psychological threats tend to be almost constant in time, because they are fueled by our obsessive thoughts about them. As a consequence our body is often undergoing a long-lasting stress response that debilitates it.

Staying with a negative experience past the point that’s useful is like running laps in Hell: You dig the track a little deeper in your brain each time. ― Rick Hanson

Is there any remedy? Is it possible to train our brain to respond in a healthier way to a perceived thread? Can we learn to pay attention to our thoughts, so that they do not fuel our stress response?

Yes and yes 🙂 As discussed in Mindfulness Meditation: Why You Should Seriously Consider Giving It a Try, through mindfulness meditation we can learn how to have a healthier relationship with our thoughts and feelings, without getting lost in them. How does this reflect on the brain structures? How do they change through a regular practice? 

Over the past few decades many scientists became interested in answering these questions. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) they showed that, while meditating, the prefrontal cortex is activated. This is a newer region of our brain that is normally inactive when we are not aware of the present moment. By bringing back the attention to our breath each time we notice that we are lost in thoughts, over time we can create new neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex and, thus, rewire the brain. This property of the brain of changing through experience is called neuroplasticity.

The amazing fact is that through mental activity alone we can intentionally change our own brains. Mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, can alter brain function in specific circuits. ― Richard J. Davidson

Richard J. Davidson, a very well known neuroscientist of our time, has studied for years the benefits of meditation and its effects on the brain, cooperating among others with the Dalai Lama. Recently he published the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. If you want to learn more about the effects of meditation on the brain structures, have a look at it. His coauthor is Daniel Goleman, a very well known science journalist, who wrote also the bestseller Emotional Intelligence.

Why is rewiring the brain so important? Because it allows us to choose freely how to respond to a perceived thread. Instead of reacting immediately by fighting, flying or freezing, we are able to pause, recognize if the danger is real and then respond more appropriately from the prefrontal cortex. The more we train our brain, the less likely we are to react. For example, if someone cuts us off in traffic, instead of immediately lashing out or being physically violent, we can pause and choose a more appropriate response. Moreover, we can also limit in time the stress response if, instead of ruminating for hours on how disrespectful they were, getting angry over and over again, we recognize the thought and choose not to fuel it.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. — Viktor E. Frankl

Rewiring the brain is fundamental also to overcome the unconscious beliefs that run our lives. In fact, once we become aware of the thoughts that fuel them, we can teach our brain a better way to respond and, eventually, we can free ourselves from them 🙂

Would you like to experience this in your life? Bring to mind a problematic situation, where you normally react. For example, think about what happens when you feel judged or criticized. Do you immediately withdraw? Or do you become aggressive and defensive? Try to rewire your brain as follows: Each time you feel triggered, instead of fighting, flying or freezing, just breath, pause and respond more appropriately from the prefrontal cortex. By repeating this enough times, you will teach your brain a new way to handle the situation. Eventually this will become your natural response to it 🙂

Meditation invokes that which is known in neuroscience as neuroplasticity; which is the loosening of the old nerve cells or hardwiring in the brain, to make space for the new to emerge. Meditation, in this sense, is a fire that burns away the old or conditioned self. ― Craig Krishna

Cultivating a new way to respond to a perceived threat is key to learning a healthier way to cope with stressMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program developed in 1979 by Jon-Kabatt Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Over the years, this eight-week training has helped many people and is now taught all over the world. Have a look at this short video where Jon-Kabatt Zinn and Oprah Winfrey discuss about mindfulness.

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally in the service of self-understanding and wisdom. — Jon Kabat-Zinn

Now that you know how beneficial mindfulness meditation can be, would you like to give it a try? 🙂 In How To Get Started with Mindfulness Meditation: Some Ideas to Help You Establish Your Own Practice you can find some suggestions that you can integrate in your own routine 🙂

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