The neuroscience of mindfulness
For any doubting Thomas’ out there who thinks that mindfulness is just some sort of ‘out there’ alternative, hippy type thing for people with beards and kaftans (though of course I have no issue at all with beards, hippies or kaftans), I would like to share some of the neuroscience. It is after all the neuroscience research findings that gives clinical mindfulness its credibility with the NHS and its inclusion in the NICE guidelines.
Firstly, it is important to realise that our brains are capable of change, in neuroscience terms this is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways. Until recent years it was thought that from the age of about 23 our brains were pretty much ‘set’ along with other biological development; however, the great news is that we now have proof that the brain continues to change/develop throughout adult life. This means that what we do with our mind, influences the way the brain works, this is why contemplative mind training practices (such as mindfulness meditation), can alleviate stress and anxiety, help with depression, and lead to increased feelings of general physical wellness and psychological wellbeing.
It is not just mindfulness meditation that changes the brain, learning a new skill like learning to play a musical instrument for example, creates associated neural changes. In a famous study of London taxi-cab drivers the memory store (hippocampus) area of the brain was shown to be larger than average (from the retention of all of those street names, routes etc). Learning to juggle, causes changes to mid-temporal areas of the brain, as the skill develops; brain-hand-eye coordination develops and the body and mind work seamlessly together – pretty amazing stuff, all dependent on the brain creating the neural pathways necessary!
With meditation, changes are seen in a range of brain areas, including a shift in which hemisphere of the brain is activated; the brain is divided into left and right hemispheres. In general, especially in the western world, we are pretty much left hemisphere dominant. The left hemisphere is associated with analytical, rational and logical thinking; however, it is also associated with overthinking, worrying and ruminating. The right hemisphere is more associated with non-verbal awareness, visual and spatial perception, expression of emotion and emotional regulation. Being overly left brain dominated means we think too much, do too much, and miss out on ‘just being’. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help us shift to a more right hemisphere brain mode, this has a calming effect on mental chatter, and a stilling effect on the mind. Engaging the right brain also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which means less stress, as we move away from sympathetic nervous system activation with it’s adrenaline releasing action.
In an associated way meditation has also been found to down-regulate the amygdala (the anxiety/threat centre in the brain); this is fantastic news for people who suffer from anxiety as it is this part of the brain that gets activated when we become anxious or panic, in anxiety disorders it gets overly active (like a faulty alarm system). Amygdala activation has also been associated with high levels of depressive ruminative thinking (the tendency to focus on past negative experiences/events) and therefore this is one of the ways that mindfulness can help people who suffer from depression.
A large amount of mindfulness research has focused on its efficacy as a treatment for depression, which is why the NICE guidelines recommend MBCT for depressive relapse, or treatment resistant depression. This is largely to do with mindfulness meditation developing the ability to disengage from ruminative, thoughts (these ruminative thoughts are often responsible for maintaining the depressed mood). Mindfulness meditation is like ‘brain training’; with practice the mind becomes aware of the mind thinking – yes, sounds confusing, it is what in CBT we call metacognition. Metacognition is the ability to be witness to our own thinking processes, this insight gives us a choice point, to either get involved with, and think more into the rumination, or to let it go. Obviously, letting go of the unhelpful ruminative thinking is very helpful and leads to an alleviation of depressive feelings.
I could go on, the research is vast, still emerging, and overwhelmingly supportive of the therapeutic clinical use of meditation to help people suffering from a range of mental health problems. I would encourage any readers interested to do a little research of their own.