We used to think that the brain stopped growing and developing in early adulthood, and then after that it was supposedly all downhill from there. We now know from neuroscience research that the brain continues to change in response to experiences we have throughout our life span; a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Research shows that the brain can be developed and trained in the same way we build our muscles in the gym. There is a growing body of evidence that the practice of mindfulness meditation changes the brain in ways that significantly improve health and overall wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Whether our mindfulness practice focuses on the breath, sounds, thoughts, or emotions, the focus is on being attentive to what we are experiencing in the moment. It is normal for attention to wander while meditating and the focus is to simply become aware of when the mind wanders and to guide the attention back to the present. The more you practice doing this, the more you will learn about the nature of the mind, because you’ll begin to notice more of everything, including when the mind wonders and overall distractedness.
Meditators become better at not only noticing what is happening in the moment, but directing their focus and attention. An Emory University study found that experienced meditators were much better at dropping extraneous thought and focusing on the matter at hand when bombarded by stimuli while performing a computer task.
How does Mindfulness Change the Brain?
In the past 15 years, there has been an explosion of research into the effects of mindfulness practice which suggests that a regular meditation practice can cause beneficial structural changes to the brain in as little as eight weeks. In addition, there is evidence that new neural pathways are developed and brain connections are strengthened with mindfulness practice. Some of the benefits associated with these changes include a strengthened immune system, decreased rumination and reactivity, greater self-awareness, and improvements in attention and focus, problem-solving, emotion regulation, empathy, memory and learning.
Mindfulness and Stress
The research on the effects of meditation on the brain indicates that it remodels the brain to strengthen the qualities that are essential to happiness, health and wellbeing as well as a sense of resilience, equanimity, calm, and a compassionate connection to others. As a result, when we practice mindfulness on a regular basis we become less reactive, more grounded, more aware of our experiences and the ways that we relate to them, and we are able to make conscious choices about how to respond. We are less likely to reach for food or a drink while on automatic pilot and better able to make healthy choices to meet our needs because we are noticing early on the emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations that trigger us. We are then able to respond in more effective and conscious ways and give ourselves what we really need rather than mindlessly seeking escape or comfort.
Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J.A. (2011). What are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. American Psychological Association.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Dell.
Ricard, M., Lutz, A., Davidson, R. (2014). Mind of the Meditator. Scientific American.