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Mindfulness is the process of paying attention, in an open, nonjudgmental way, to your experience in the present moment.  Dr Daniel J. Siegel, defines mindfulness as the process of developing an awareness of the present moment that is filled with COAL—curiosity, openness, acceptance and love toward our ongoing experience. Mindfulness training exercises include deliberately focusing on the breath as an anchor for your attention, maintaining an open awareness of whatever thoughts and feelings spontaneously arise in your mind and body, and deliberately directing kind and compassionate feelings towards self and others.  In this article, you will read about how mindfulness practice changes your brain to give you more cognitive flexibility, better control over attention, emotions, and impulses, relief from stress and anxiety, and greater brain integration and connectivity.

How Does Mindfulness Work in Your Brain?

Dr. Siegel describes the working of mindfulness in the brain as follows:

“Noticing the differences between sense and story, between primary experience-dependent ‘bottom-up’ input and the secondary ‘top-down’ chatter of prior learning becomes a fundamental tool of the mindfulness approach. Once this distinction, this noticing of the contents of the mind, is readily accessible through intentional practice, the capacity to alter habitual patterns is created and the possibility becomes available for relief from self-preoccupied rumination, self-defeating thought-patterns, negative autobiographical narratives and maladaptive patterns of emotional reactivity.” 

In other words, when we can make a distinction between our direct, "in the moment", experience and our judgments and interpretations of these emotional and bodily states, we can break the cycles of automatic reactivity and undo the grip of negative stories and rigid beliefs about ourselves, based on past negative experiences.  When we can label our negative self-beliefs as “just a story,” then we have the potential to disengage from the inner critic and become more self-compassionate.  If, in the midst of a fight with your partner, you can label your angry thoughts and hurt feelings as “just my rejection script,” or if you can notice your blood pressure rising and your face getting redder, then you have a greater degree of choice about how to behave. Rather than feeling compelled to scream and attack or vigorously defend your position, you can instead choose to take a break, connect with your love for your partner, or try to understand his/her point of view.  As a result, you should have reduced stress and more loving, connected  relationships.

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Research in the past decade has found multiple benefits of mindfulness, including improvements in immune function, reductions in stress and anxiety, increases in empathy and improvement in relationship satisfaction. A recent statistical review which pooled data from 16 studies showed that mindfulness has moderate effects on at least eight different brain regions involved in brain integration and connectivity, sense of self, impulse control, and regulation of attention and emotion.

What Areas of the Brain Does Mindfulness Affect?

One of the prime areas affected by mindfulness is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain associated with self-perception, regulation of attention, emotions and impulses and cognitive flexibility or the ability to change problem-solving strategies when you aren't getting the results you want. The ACC helps you to adapt and learn from experience, rather than getting stuck in fixed views of yourself and operating on autopilot.  When you face uncertainty and a rapidly changing world, the ACC is especially important.

A second brain region affected by mindfulness is the hippocampus. In a 2011 study, participants in a mindfulness program had increased grey matter in this area, compared to control subjects.  Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies. The hippocampus is the center for making new memories.  Without a working hippocampus, you cannot live in the present and will be stuck in the old memories of the past.  In fact, the hippocampus is smaller in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. The hippocampus helps you to be more resilient and change with new experiences.  It has many receptors for cortisol, the stress hormone, and can be damaged by too much stress.  

A third area that mindfulness affects is the corpus callosum which connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  The right hemisphere is associated with more holistic, emotional, nonverbal processing, whereas the left hemisphere is linear, literal, and logical and involved in verbal processing.  Some scientists believe that the left hemisphere is a center for positive emotion while the right is associated with negative emotion. The corpus callosum is thicker in experienced meditators, suggesting greater connectivity and ability to put your emotional and bodily experiences into words and connect emotions to events in a logical way.  

If you’re not convinced by now that learning and practicing mindfulness is a good idea, I will leave you with the words of Harvard neuroscience researchers writing for the Harvard Business Review:

“Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have”:  a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress.”

Other Reads

5 Ways Living Mindfully Can Help You Reach Your Goals

9 Ways to Calm Your Anxious MInd

Become the CEO of your Own Brain in 6 Easy Steps

9 Essential Qualities of Mindfulness

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and expert on neuroscience, mindfulness, stress, and relationships . She provides workshops, speaking engagements and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet.

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