We have all heard that Mindfulness Meditation is good for us. How can sitting down and focusing on our breath change our brain for the better?
The left hemisphere of our brain is associated with analytical and logical processing. The right brain is connected with creativity, visual and spatial perception, and emotional expression. When most of our life is dominated by left brain activity, there is often a focus on frantic “doing” and not enough time for “being” in the moment. Practicing mindfulness meditation can shift us towards activating the right brain: stilling the chatter and making us feel calmer. It is difficult for most of us to let go of our left brain, even when practising Mindfulness. We need to remind ourselves that it is the very process of noticing that our mind has wandered into thinking (or perhaps obsessing) about something and bringing our focus back to our breath that creates changes in our brain. As we do this we strengthen the neural pathways related to this activity.
It is important to treat ourselves gently. If we are critical of ourselves as we are learning, this triggers our sympathetic nervous system, flooding our mind with fight or flight hormones and we will fail to reach a state of relaxation.
At one point we believed that we had a certain amount of neurones at birth and that was fixed for life. Contemporary neuroscientists have discovered that we can create new neurones and new neural pathways by exercising our bodies and challenging our brains to learn new things. By practicing mindfulness meditation on a regular basis we can change our brains.
How does mindfulness meditation change our brain? The amygdala is a primitive part of our brain. It is associated with fear and emotion and activates our tendency to fight, flight or freeze in the face of danger. This part of our brain appears to shrink after an 8 week course in Mindfulness Meditation. While the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher functions of the brain such as awareness, concentration and decision making – becomes thicker. It becomes easier to hold onto a mentally clear state. Our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure become lower. MRIs have shown that the more people meditate the more they are able to hold onto their ability to maintain a stance of equanimity in the face of stressful situations.
Norman Doidge (author of The Brain that Changes Itself) talks about how parts of the brain that fire together get wired together. As we practise mindfulness meditation, we wire together the the higher order functioning of the pre-frontal cortex with the more primitive functioning amygdala. As the connection between the amygdala and areas associated with attention and concentration become stronger connections between the amygdala and other parts of the brain become weaker. Our more primal responses to stress are superseded by more thoughtful ones.
Like any kind of exercise the benefits come from disciplined practice.
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