Mindfulness is everywhere. Depression, anxiety, addiction, chronic pain, and cancer are just some of the mental and physical disorders in which mindfulness can help. Essentially mindfulness refers to the process of self-awareness by focusing our attention to our present state while taking a non-judgmental stance. Expanded versions of mindfulness include the practice of compassion, empathy and resilience. You can engage in mindfulness through the formal practice of meditation or on a moment-to-moment basis.
When feeling anxious or depressed, many look to medications to relieve emotional pain. Medications seem to offer a remedy for the “chemical imbalance” that individuals experience. We have found, however, that non-pharmaceutical therapy, such as psychotherapy and mindfulness training actually cause structural changes in the brain. Neuroscience has revealed numerous studies showing that mindfulness, in particular, leads to specific brain alterations.
Researchers use neuroimaging scans to identify brain structures that change after mindfulness practice. Changes refers to increased grey matter, alternations in connectivity to other parts of the brain and activation and deactivation. There are various ways in which you can practice mindfulness and this can impact how the brain responds. However, overall mindfulness leads to certain changes in the specific parts of the brain.
Among the research participants across studies, mindfulness alters the brain the following areas:
- Cingulate Cortex: Part of the cerebral cortex involved in emotional, learning and attentional processes. Mindfulness leads to increases in grey matter. This finding makes sense given that mindfulness improves overall awareness, attention and focus.
- Pre-frontal Cortex: This is part of the frontal lobes, responsible for higher level thinking, such as planning, problem solving, self-awareness and impulse control. Mindfulness has been shown to alter brain activity within this region.
- Amygdala: This is the brain’s fear center, partly responsible for our “flight or fight” response. Mindfulness practice has been shown to actually shrink this part of the brain. Additionally, the connection between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex becomes weaker. Thus, as this connection becomes weak, the connection between the parts of brain involved in attention and focus grow in strength.
- Insula: Part of the cerebral cortex involved in consciousness, emotion, homeostasis, motor control and self-awareness. Mindfulness training altered neuronal processes.
- Hippocampus: Involved in the processing and storage of long-term memories. Mindfulness practice lead to an increase in grey matter and reduced atrophy.
It makes sense that mindfulness would alter these parts of the brain, as they are involved in stress, anxiety, pain, mood, attention, and learning. Thus, when you incorporate mindfulness into your life, you are actually changing your brain.