Neuroscience and Mindfulness Meditation
by Paul Bedson
It is always heartwarming when there is a convergence between science (neuroscience), psychology (mental health) and spirituality (meditation). These three areas of study are sometimes antagonistic but the new science of the brain is bringing them together, perhaps as strange bedfellows!
The new technology of functional brain imaging (fMRI) is giving us the ability to peak into the secret chambers of the brain whilst it is actually at work – or at rest. With this technology, we can watch what is happening inside the brain of someone meditating and someone who has never meditated. We can also look at the structure and function of the brains of long-term meditators and see how meditation makes a difference.
We can observe how changes to the way in which we use our brain, create changes to the structure of our brain. The ability of our brain to change itself, to rewire itself and to adapt itself to new situations is called neuroplasticity.
Not only can our brain rewire its existing circuits to adapt to a new situation, our brain can even grow new circuits to enhance its abilities.
Brain neurons can change and adapt in two fundamental ways:-
1. Neurogenesis – stem cells can grow into new neurons
2. Synaptogenesis – new connections can ‘sprout’ between existing neurons
Prior to the discovery of neuroplasticity, scientists believed that the structure and function of the human brain were changeable (i.e. plastic) in childhood, but became fixed or static in adulthood. If an area of the brain was damaged, science believed it was impossible to ever recover the capacities for which the area was responsible. The belief that “brain cells cannot regrow” was so well entrenched that there was even an urban myth that “three beers kill 10,000 brain cells and they never grow back.”
We now understand that the brain is constantly changing and rewiring itself right throughout our life. In fact, the way that we consistently think, behave and react will “wire” itself into our brain.
“If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts and stress then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed moods, a narrow focus on threats and losses and inclinations towards sadness and guilt.” 1
The brain will change both its structure and function depending on where our attention goes and which types of thoughts we entertain or indulge. Neuroplasticity can be positive or negative and we have the potential to change negative brain habits (such as excessive rumination) into more positive ones.
Through self-directed neuroplasticity, we can activate more beneficial mental states and install them as neural traits. This has significant implications for the management and healing of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD etc. Negative moods can be moderated and managed by regulating what our attention rests upon and/or regulating the wandering of attention. Positive attitudes like safety, hope, optimism, gratitude, and enthusiasm can be cultivated and installed through self-directed neuroplasticity.
Negative neuroplasticity habits include excessive rumination (overthinking) and an inattentive, wandering mind. In 2001, a neurologist by the name of Dr. Marcus Raichle at Washington University discovered a network of brain structures responsible for the inattentive wandering of our minds. He coined the term “Default Mode Network” (DMN) to describe the group of brain structures active during our default, inattentive minds states. 2
Inattention describes states of daydreaming, contemplating the future, reliving the past or general rumination. A well-balanced DMN helps us plan tasks, review past actions to improve future behavior and to remember relevant life details. But with the expansion of the brain’s intellectual capabilities comes the unfortunate backlash that some of the functions could go too far and cause mental stress.
The wandering, inattentive mind can take the mind into:-
- anxiety (over-imagining possible pasts, presents or futures)
- depression (over-regretted pasts, presents or futures)
- obsessionality (repetitive habits of anxiety and over-judgement)
An overactive DMN is highly correlated with negative mood states and certain mental illnesses. 3
Alternatively, keeping your attention centered in the present moment reduces your wandering mind and deactivates the DMN. In fact, researchers have found that the aspect of the wandering mind, which has a particularly negative impact, is the tendency to be less aware of the present moment.
A sedentary lifestyle with too many passive leisure activities e.g. computer time, television, social media, video games etc) allow the wandering mind to form negative mental habits which are roughly the opposite of a ‘flow state’. In a flow state, you are more fully present, more connected with your needs and feelings (interoception) and more engaged with others or activities (exteroception). In a flow state, there is less rumination on things that have happened in the past and things that may happen in the future.
There is an antidote for DMN activity and the wandering mind, which can take us into negative mood states. A very direct and powerful antidote comes from mindfulness meditation. Attention, like any other skill or attribute, can be trained. Mindfulness meditation is an attention-training technique. It consists of training practitioners to be mindful, an attentional stance of openly and non-judgmentally observing one’s moment-to-moment experiences. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that mindfulness meditation training reduces stress and improves aspects of physical and psychological health.4
Neuroimaging (fMRI) studies suggest that mindfulness meditation training can alter functional neural responding to cognitive and affective tasks.
A major component of mindfulness meditation training is focusing and refocusing awareness on present moment internal and external experience (e.g. breathing, thoughts, ambient sounds, body sensations and feelings) as opposed to mind wandering or active problem-solving. Functional brain imaging shows that mindfulness meditation leads to increased activations in frontal brain regions involved in attention.5
The attention “muscle” of the brain, the anterior cingulate, grows stronger through mindfulness meditation. In addition, mindfulness meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness in the anterior insula (involved in interoception or self-awareness), frontal cortex (involved in the integration of emotion and cognition), and the sensory cortices.6
Thus there is evidence that mindfulness meditation is associated with changes in attention and perceptual processing circuits, reflecting the emphasis on conscious direction and redirection of attention to present moment experience and increased awareness of sensory stimuli…we come to our senses!
Some of the traits that are developed by mindfulness meditation training include:-
- a less judgmental, critical nature
- a less reactive nature
- more affect tolerance (the ability to stay present and face challenging emotions)
- greater ability to describe one’s inner world of feelings and needs
- greater self-awareness of behaviours and more choice of response
- the ability to regulate emotions (different to repressing or controlling emotions)
Stepping back from focusing on specific areas of the brain, which are activated or deactivated by mindfulness meditation, I would like to discuss the impact on whole brain function and structure.
Mindfulness meditation training integrates the whole brain. This integration of the whole brain happens in two directions:-
1. bilateral integration of the two hemispheres of the brain
2. vertical integration of the six layers of the cerebral cortex.
Bilateral integration of the two hemispheres of the brain stops the left hemisphere from dominating. Left hemisphere brain activity is logical, linear, verbal (linguistic), literal, goal-oriented; whereas right hemisphere brain activity is wholistic, non-verbal, visual/spatial, and metaphoric.
Excessive rumination can cause us to be lost in the left hemisphere, disconnected from physical and emotional experience…living from the neck up!
Vertical integration of the six layers inhibits “top down” dominance of layers 1, 2 and 3 of the cerebral cortex. “Top down” dominance refers to the layers of the cortex that add interpretation, analysis, judgement, and anticipation onto our experience. This dominance can stifle spontaneity, creativity, passion and compassion, emotional intelligence and gut instinct.
Mindful awareness (presence) facilitates the integration of head and heart; mind and body; goal-orientation and process-orientation; thinking and feeling; and the inside and outside self. This integration embraces all the parts of our being and leads to the subjective experience of integration, which is harmony.
Harmony is the essence of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
1 Rick Hanson – “Hardwiring Happiness” Harmony Books, New York 2013
2 Raichle M.E., Macleod A.M., Snyder A.Z. (2001) A default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98(2), 676-682
3 Raichle M.E. (2010) The brain’s dark energy. Scientific America 302(3) 44-49
4 Kilpatrick L.A., Suyenobu B.Y., Smith, S.R. et al (2011) Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity – PubMed
5 Farb et al, 2007; Goldin and Gross, 2010; Holzel et al, 2008.
6 Lazar et al. 2005
The Gawler Cancer Foundation & Yarra Valley Living Centre
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Paul has been working in the field of mind/body medicine for over 20 years as a counsellor, psychotherapist, meditation instructor and natural therapist. His particular interest is in helping people deal with the range of emotional issues associated with their healing journey. Paul also works with grief and anxiety issues and relationship problems. He teaches mindfulness-based styles of meditation which develop wisdom and compassion through awareness of body, emotion, mind and spirit as one integrated Self. Paul co-authored the book Meditation an In-Depth Guide with Ian Gawler.