Updated: Apr 3, 2022
When I began to mediate, or practicing paying attention to my thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviours and habits a.k.a mindfulness - it was out of necessity. I was at a point where my whole life was turned upside down...
...it became apparent to me that it was my character traits and personality that was creating a progressively destructive reality, despite many happy moments, friends, holidays etc. Unhealthy in body and mind, a dead end job, poor finances and relationships was down to my nature, that often I could hide away - work-shy, selfish, immature, spiteful, erratic, quick to anger and just wanting to have a good time, usually by getting off my head. I began asking many questions about myself and how I was creating this life I wanted to run away from…
Learning to be with my mind during these times of anxiety, depression and lack of self-worth (despite functioning to the point nobody really could tell any different), was difficult and led me to the practice of meditation. The practice has had huge influence in the gradual transformation of my being, increased self-awareness, the way I think and react to emotions, how I see myself, how I spend my time, how I speak and my physical body.
And this is why the neuroscience of mindfulness is such a fascinating topic. Meditation and mindfulness can calm you and regulate your emotions in the short term, but it can also change your brain permanently if approached as a form of mental exercise. Whatever may be your objectives for wanting to meditate or practice mindfulness, I think it is important to be aware of the exponential benefits that these simple practices can have on the brain - the very operating system that navigates us through this life.
Here are a few key findings that science is demonstrating can occur in the brain, which lead to personal-change / growth, when we practice mediation and mindfulness:
Stress & Emotional Regulation:
This may be the most well-known (or at least sought after) affect of mediation on the brain, perhaps the most popular reason that people want to meditate is to be more calm because of a highly stressful life.
Findings show 8-weeks of training in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program - where participants are required to practice different mindfulness exercises for 40 minutes per day (including walking, mindful eating, stretching) - led to a reduction in grey matter around the amygdala - the part of the brain responsible for threat detection (whether real or perceived) stress response and emotional regulation.
“The smaller their amygdala became, the less stressed people felt, even though their external environment remained the same. It proved that the change in amygdala reflected the change in the people’s reactions to their environment, not in the environment itself.”
What I noticed in real terms - I started becoming aware of the triggers in my life, the stimuli in my environment which elicited a reaction without my control. What made me angry and see red, react regrettably, make me sad or distressed. As the studies have found, the stress-response becomes less reactive, meaning in real terms, that I was / am able to notice that there are emotions arising and a change in physiology - this provides me a little longer opportunity to respond mindfully rather than react mindlessly, seemingly without control. Over time, I saw patterns and re-occuring situations that illicit the stress-response - whether I’m actually ‘stressed’ or not - and this for me is helpful to understand myself better and enable any change.
It’s been said that attention is our currency - what we pay attention to grows, and the well-documented dwindling attention span of people in the age of social media, convenience technology and visual stimulation, perhaps some reason for social bankruptcy. For me, I was rarely able to complete a task, or poor focus leading to a less quality output, or missing out on the finer details of a conversation with a friend and missing out on simple joys which present themselves regularly through the day because of rumination about things which usually have no bearing on life now. The mind wandering anywhere and everywhere except for on the present moment.
A study of 2,250 people conducted at Harvard University found that on average we spend nearly 47% of our waking hours in this mind-wandering state (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). This is a lot of hours spent in our heads and distracted from what is actually going on now. This autopilot mode is useful and saves a lot of brain power - e.g I don’t have to learn to drive every day - the car pretty much drives itself because of hard-wired neural network in place following years of repetition. However, we can all think of the impact this may have on things that are important to us - time with the kids thinking of work, or doing work and thinking about Netflix and more dangerously if we’ve a job with dangerous consequences such as electrician or operating machinery.
Studies into mindfulness' impacts on the brain have highlighted that those that committed to an 8 weeks mindfulness-based stress reduction training program (MBSR), were found to experience that the default mode network was less and less active - fMRI scans showed less grey matter density around this part of the brain, which is responsible for mind-wandering, day-dreaming and rumination.
The practice of meditation follows a cycle: focusing attention (on breathing or bodily sensation), noticing being distracted or caught in a train of thought (mind-wandering or self-referential thoughts) and returning to the point of focus. Over and over again – just how we train the body’s muscles with repetitive exercises, the muscle (or neural network) of attention is trained during meditation.
Breaking Bad Habits:
It is said that 70% of our daily behaviours are habitual - this can include rolling out of bed to check social media, brush teeth, miss breakfast and commute to work the same we always do. Or behaviours such as negative self-talk that we may use throughout the day in different situations. Or binge-watching Netflix for 3 hours per evening…and so on.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to activate the brain’s prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain associated with concentration, planning and decision making. In order to break any bad habit, you need be aware that it’s happening, be present, and change the behaviour. Mindfulness helps develop the awareness of what triggers unhealthy behavioural patterns, as well as how habitual and automatic reactivity can create and reinforce a negative loop. This ability to pause mindfully allows for the possibility to make a new healthier decision in response to triggers.
Aside from habits such as smoking and regularly drinking excessively - which were eventually worked through using the principles of mindful attention - I also noticed a habit of not being able to speak my feelings, to be honest with what I thought - often for the reason of people pleasing or to not offend. Whilst in my mind, I thought it was coming from a good place, but in reality it was down to not wanting to be myself for fear of not being accepted. During meditation practice, I’d often notice certain habitual thought patterns would arise - acknowledging them and returning back to my breathing, eventually I was able take on the position of witness to the thought - “ah, there it is again.” I can now see these patterns show up in the midst of daily life, aware that they are habitual and linked to my past, I know they need not be engaged with, instead letting them pass.
Here is a fantastic resource for changing habits with mindfulness: mindful.org/how-to-change-your-habits-with-mindfulness
Although studies into mindfulness, meditation and their impacts on the brain are in the relative infancy, it’s really exciting to see the growing body of evidence which demonstrates that something simple as sitting with your eyes closed and practicing being aware has the power to re-wire the brain a.k.a neuroplasticity.
Good luck with your practice!