Archive for December, 2014
“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
~ Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator
One of the most common New Year’s resolutions made each year is to exercise more. Whether or not people actually follow through on this intention, it is an indication that people are well aware of the value of physical fitness; but, what about our brain? As scientific understanding of the brain evolves, there is a greater awareness of how important it is to keep this organ in our body fit. According to Dr. Judson Brewer (a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts who uses mindfulness to treat addiction), “[Mindfulness] is just the next generation of exercise. We’ve got the physical exercise components down. Now it’s about working out how can we actually train our minds.”1
The Mindful Brain
Until recently, neuroscientists believed that after early adulthood, the brain no longer is capable of significant change: the viewpoint was that, at a certain point, the brain becomes rigid, no longer plastic. More current research has shown this not to be true. Newer understanding recognizes that the brain remains plastic as we age.2 This means that we are able to continue creating new neural pathways (new connections in the brain), hence new skills, habits and ways of responding; although it takes conscious effort and repetition (training) to do so. It turns out that the brain can keep growing; it’s just that we have been using it in such a way that maintains rigid behaviors. Furthermore, mindfulness is one way to train our brain to maintain its plasticity and ultimately to create new patterns of response, even as we age.
How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain – The Proof is in the Brain Scans
Mindfulness has been practiced for over twenty six hundred years. Over that time, there has been a consistent history of anecdotal experience suggesting the positive outcomes of this practice. Today, with advances in the study of the brain, there is empirical research, using objective measures, that supports and validates many of these anecdotal claims. Modern science now provides physical evidence of benefits of mindfulness:
- Philippe Goldin, a psychology researcher, headed a study at Stanford University to better understand the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training for people suffering from Social Anxiety Disorders. After two months of mindfulness meditation training, participants reported less emotional anxiety, reduced depression, and greater self-esteem. MRI scans observed participants’ brain activity before and after the training suggesting that mindfulness meditation might help people view themselves more positively.3
- Another study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts shows that mindfulness meditation physically alters the brain. M.R.I. brain scans of participants who underwent eight weeks of MBSR training showed measurable changes in gray matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress, while a control group that did not practice meditation showed no changes. These brain scans also found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory, as well as a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.4
- Additionally, Dr. Judson Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist who studies how mindfulness changes the brain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, brought experienced mindfulness meditators into an fMRI scanner and had them simply meditate while measuring their brain activity. It was found that a region of the brain called the posterior cingulate became active when folks were caught up in thought and quieted down when they were meditating.5 This is the same region that gets activated during states of craving, anxiety, rumination, and even when we are thinking about ourselves. Brewer postulates that training in meditation can help us get out of our own way when we are otherwise likely to get caught by these maladaptive states of mind.
Together, these studies validate that by practicing mindfulness meditation we are actually improving emotional and cognitive fitness of the brain.
Mindfulness is an Experiential Practice Not an Intellectual Exercise
With mindfulness becoming an increasingly popular topic, there is an abundance of books, articles, and videos touting its benefits. Additionally, mindfulness is showing up more often in mainstream media: Oprah has highlighted mindfulness in her programs and magazine over the years; just this year, in his book “10% Happier,” ABC News anchor Dan Harris shared how he turned to mindfulness meditation to address panic attacks and how it has helped him be happier6; and Anderson Cooper explored mindfulness in a segment of 60 Minutes7. Not surprisingly, I meet more and more new mindfulness students who arrive relatively well-read on the topic. This conceptual understanding is useful, however, the benefits of mindfulness do not come from a conceptual understanding; instead, it needs to be actually practiced for associated positive changes in the brain to occur. Just as with physical exercise that trains muscles in the body, it is the repeated experience of mindfulness that develops and trains the brain. For example, if I watch a yoga video, I may understand better how to move my body to attain specific poses, but unless I actually engage in those poses, I don’t gain their benefits. Likewise, mindfulness must actually be practiced in order to impact the fitness of the brain.
How to Engage in Mindfulness Meditation
It can be particularly difficult to develop new practices and make them part of your routine when you attempt to do it your own. This is true for mindfulness. Therefore, I don’t suggest that you go it alone when learning and developing mindfulness mediation. Here are some ways to learn mindfulness and approach it as a new element of your lifestyle and have the support that is necessary:
- Take a class: look for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program offered near you
- Attend a mindfulness meditation sitting group
- Go on a mindfulness meditation retreat
- Find a teacher or coach to get you started and help you develop a practice
Ultimately, you will be the best judge as to how mindfulness meditation contributes to the fitness of your brain.
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
~ Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex