Exploring the Impact of Mindfulness, Part 2

Last week, we began to examine some of the scientific principles behind how and why Mindfulness benefits us while we are adapting to life changing circumstances. We will be building upon that discussion today with an overview of some scientific findings.

Modern scientists began studying the brains of people who regularly engaged in meditation practices sixty years ago. They found that these practitioners could weather stressful events with more resilience, come up with more original and creative ideas, and engage in improved cognitive functioning such as memory recall. In the last ten years, however, we have come to also discover that every time we think, feel, or act, a neural connection occurs in our brain. Things that we think, feel, or do most often strengthen these connections and pathways. In the same vein, those connections that we don’t use become weakened and begin to fall away. We can notice this with our habits that have become automatic and often mindless. Our thoughts and thought patterns work in the same way.

We can notice this with our habits that have become automatic and often mindless. Our thoughts and thought patterns work in the same way. Worry thoughts, angry thoughts, guilt, shame, and even sadness can all become habitual and strengthen the neuronal connections that forge them. It then becomes much easier to go there – and more readily.

Because these connections become so strong, habitual, and repetitive, it often begins to feel like we are powerless to change them. Yet, we merely need to understand how we can change our brains and these neuronal connections to make effective and enduring changes. This is where neuroplasticity can be impactful.

Neuroplasticity refers to the idea that our brain is, in many ways, like plastic and malleable. Things we find difficult can become easier with repetition – the more we do, think, and feel, the easier these challenging tasks become. Restructuring our brain through

Restructuring our brain through Mindfulness happens through the practice of noticing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations and bringing our awareness back to the present experience of these things rather than getting caught up in them. As we do this, we begin to both create and strengthen new neuronal pathways as well as weaken previous, maladaptive ones that were not helpful for us.

Scientists looked to see how, over three months of Mindfulness practices can change the brain structure of people engaging in this practice. Findings indicated a greater amount of grey matter in the regions of the brain responsible for working memory and executive decision making. These areas, interestingly, are typically associated with decline as age increases. Yet, the converse of this effect was found amongst those practicing Mindfulness over three months. In other words, Mindfulness slows down and prevents the natural age-related decline in cortical structure.

A follow-up study looked to target whether these effects in the brain were, in fact, due to the meditation instead of other potential factors. As a result, these other variables were isolated to see what changed amongst practitioners of Mindfulness meditation. The findings that were illuminated highlight valuable benefits for a regular Mindfulness practice.

Scientists noted an increase in the size of the hippocampus amongst practitioners of Mindfulness. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that aids in managing emotions, learning, and memory. In fact, we see a decrease in this area among people with PTSD and depression. In addition, scientists also noticed changes in the temporo-parietal area of the brain, which contributes to perspective taking, empathy, and compassion. This is not a surprising result of studies since, often, one of the documented benefits of Mindfulness has been an improvement in interpersonal relationships.

Additional findings were also reported in these robust studies including some that suggest Mindfulness is a particularly useful tool for overcoming disruptions and challenges in our lives. I explore further findings in next week’s blog post as well as in an episode of the “Beyond the Couch” podcast.

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