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Mindfulness and Your Brain: Reasons to Meditate

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Mindfulness is more than a buzz word. For starters, buzz words have shorter lives than this. Mindfulness has now been mainstream for several years and its growth as a common wellbeing tool isn’t abating yet, nor does it look set to do so. It’s understandable why this is. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre has found that the use of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has powerfully positive effects on long-term recurrent depression reducing recurrence by 40-50% compared to standard treatment. It’s recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) which is a huge thumbs-up.

Mindfulness works. And not just for depression treatment. The benefits are wide ranging from increased focus to reduced fatigue, benefits to the immune system to emotional regulation.So what are these benefits of meditation and mindfulness, and what is it about the way our brains work that makes mindfulness work?

Understanding Your Brain Regions

The brain is intensely complex, and this is true of the mindfulness brain too. There’s still a great deal for us to learn. If you’re the kind of individual who isn’t just going to take the buzzword and run with it, but want to know why mindfulness works, then you need to understand a bit about how your mindfulness brain works.

Human brains have evolved. We know that: thanks Charles Darwin. However, what many of us don’t realise is how our ‘modern’ brains are actually in a state of battle, in the process of still evolving. Our brains are made up of a combination of structures designed to help us back in our caveman-sabretooth-tiger-fighting days. We deal with fear (on a survival level) incredibly well – thanks to this. In our modern lives, where there isn’t a predator waiting to sink their teeth into you, and you’re more likely to be attacked by a pile of paperwork, you’re still largely relying on a brain that’s programmed for fight or flight.

Let’s explain this in more detail. The three brain regions you need to know about when it comes to regular meditation are: the brain stem; limbic system, and; cortex.

  • The brain stem: This is often thought of as the most basic area of the brain, yet it is absolutely central to our survival. It’s the connection between our brain and body as it connects to the spinal cord and thus entire nervous system and is responsible for a whole heap of functions we don’t even think about – from breathing to reflexes. Think of the brain stem as the automated processing centre. It just gets on and does its job.
  • The limbic system: The limbic system is where we see many of the real benefits of meditation. This is just under our cerebrum, and contains several structures. The key structures are the hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus and basal ganglia. The limbic system can be thought of as the strategist functioning in the control tower, particularly the amygdala. The limbic system is responsible for everything from emotions to learning, senses, habits and memory. However, it’s also akin to a dictator. What it says goes, and most of us haven’t taught our brain the democracy needed to assert some control over the limbic system.
  • Cortex: The cortex is the control tower, and ultimately the champion of democracy. It’s what we think of as grey matter, and is the outer wrinkly layered structure. It has ultimate control over higher functions and processing. The buck stops here for everything from perception to sensation, intentional movement, and thought. It’s big, it’s dominant, and we need to know about it. It consists of four distinct lobes: parietal; occipital; temporal, and; frontal. All responsible for different things. Worthy of our particular attention is the anterior cingulate cortex, which is important for functions such as blood pressure and heart rate as well as higher-level functions such as decision-making, attention, and emotion.

What’s important to understand when it comes to comprehending the impact of practiced meditation on your overall self, is that it’s the integration of these three areas where we see the changes. These changes, which are thanks to our brain’s amazing ability to change (neuroplasticity), are where meditation helps and we see the benefits in our mindfulness brain.

We know this because of a nifty piece of medical kit called an fMRI, short for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which measures brain activity. A vast number of studies have shown, through use of fMRI, that it’s these three areas that are central to the success of meditation. Indeed, these studies combined have suggested that, “meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes, including self-awareness and self-regulation, as well as in areas involved in attention, executive functions, and memory formations.”

What’s particularly notable is the fMRI studies that show how meditation shrinks the amygdala – which is our fight or flight control centre. It’s here where fear and emotion really get a hold, and act as dictators. It’s our stress centre. Alongside the shrinking amygdala, we see the cortex, notably the pre-frontal part, getting thicker. We’re shrinking the part that causes automated responses to stress (the dictator) and building the part which is responsible for awareness, thinking, concentration and conscious decision making (the democracy-lover).

So what does this mean on the ground, in our lives? What are the benefits of neuroplasticity, our brain’s response to meditation, in our lives?

The Brain’s Reasons to Meditate

So this is everything that’s going on at a technical level, in our brains, when we meditate. But what does this look like for us when we introduce mindfulness meditation into our daily lives? What are the benefits when you start meditating? You may be surprised, as they don’t all focus on mental health alone.

The reasons to meditate, thanks to the benefits of meditation, are immense. So let’s look at some of the benefits backed up by some good research.

  • Reduction in stress: An overwhelming number of studies demonstrate that mindfulness practice reduces stress.
  • Pain alleviation: Studies have shown that chronic pain, and its associated depressive symptoms, can be alleviated through meditation. In fact, it has been demonstrated that those who practice mindfulness regularly experience pain differently from those who don’t.
  • Decrease in addiction cravings: Other studies have shown that mindfulness centred therapy reduces cravings in those fighting addictions.
  • Alleviation of symptoms in cancer sufferers: One study has reported that “Mindfulness meditation has clinically relevant implications to alleviate psychological and physical suffering of persons living with cancer.”
  • Lower blood pressure: Largely thanks to its positive effects on reducing stress, mindfulness practice also has been shown to lower blood pressure.
  • Increased productivity: In our hectic lives we are often struggling to achieve more with the time we have. Taking the ‘time out’ to meditate isn’t counterproductive. In fact, the insurance firm Aetna found that offering mindfulness-based training added about 60 minutes more productivity per person per week!
  • Slows the aging process: More research is needed, but one small study has found that mindfulness meditation slows the aging process, at least on a cellular level.
  • Boosts immunity: There’s cause for more research to be done in this area, nonetheless, a review of the research to date has found that meditation reduces inflammation which is often a sign that the immune system is fighting disease as well as other significant positive immunity based findings.
  • Reduction in depression: Mindfulness can work “as well as anti-depressants” in treatment of depression.
  • Reduction in anxiety: Similarly, studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

The glaring reason behind all of these benefits is neuroplasticity – the ability of our brains to change due to mindfulness. We see this notably with the negativity bias. The negativity bias is our predisposition (thanks to candidates such as the amygdala) to react more to negative things. It’s in our hardwiring. You needed to stand up and run, without conscious thought, when a sabretooth tiger had you in sight. Through mindfulness we know the cortex gets a boost whereas the amygdala shrinks, and we see a more evolved mindfulness brain. So you begin to reduce your natural negativity bias – the source of stress.

All of these benefits demonstrate just how valuable to our lives mindfulness really is. It’s the impetus we need to start meditating. So now that you understand the reasons to meditate, how do you start?

How do You Practice Mindfulness?

This has all been about the science of mindfulness and how it works, but how do you change the integration of the three regions of your brain that we’ve been talking about? Mindfulness meditation isn’t complicated although it does take practice and regular commitment. Meditation is much about forming a ‘habit of meditation’ and psychiatrist and mindfulness researcher Judson Brewer demonstrates how mindfulness itself can actually help with this habit formation.

Importantly, mindfulness is not an attempt to control the wandering mind that we normally hear. It’s much more about acceptance of the wandering mind. If you can understand this then your mindfulness practice will be off to the best start. It is more about gradually training your wandering mind by bringing the attention back to your breath. You can start meditating now with nothing more than your mind.

Mindfulness and Your Brain: Reasons to Meditate

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