09 May Brain and the Mind
In a world where we want to physically see it to believe it, skepticism may be running high. Many times, meditation and spirituality are pushed aside as “new-age” fads that may not be completely objective. Research, however, speaks differently! The growing body of research highlights that the brain changes through regular meditation practice.
One of the most interesting studies in the last few years carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, though it has a quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this.
Moreover, increased gray matter was found in these parts of the brain:
- The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), which is a structure located behind the brain’s frontal lobe, showed increased gray matter within the structure. It has been associated with such functions as self-regulatory processes, including the ability to monitor attention conflicts and allow for more cognitive flexibility. In addition to self-regulation, the ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making. Scientists point out that the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.
- Prefrontal Cortex: Increased gray matter density was also found in areas of the prefrontal lobe, which are primarily responsible for executive functioning such as planning, problem-solving, and emotion regulation.
- Hippocampus: Increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus has also been noted. The hippocampus is the part of the limbic system that governs learning and memory and is extraordinarily susceptible to stress and stress-related disorders like depression or PTSD.
One other notable change is the brain is a decrease in the size of the amygdala, which controls the fight-or-flight response in the body. Chronic stress and anxiety take a toll on the body because they activate the amygdala and cause your body to be in constant overdrive, leading to many health problems. Regular mindfulness and meditation practices have showed decreased volume of the amygdala and an increased ability to handle stress and anxiety better.
The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.