How to Handle Difficult Emotions Part 10:
Taking the Brain to the Gym
Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin reports, “We all know that if you engage in certain kinds of exercise on a regular basis you can strengthen certain muscle groups in predictable ways. Strengthening neural systems is not fundamentally different. It’s basically replacing certain habits of mind with other habits.”
Michael Stanclift writes that the brain anatomy we inherit from our parents determines the original landscape upon which our brain's "empire" will be built. We inherit individual tendencies, these are like the weather patterns, and natural resources of an area - largely predetermined, but can be nurtured or deteriorated by our habits. The landscape-anatomy of our brain determines which skills we perform best, and which habits become automatic, but there's a twist to this story.
Neuroscientists have discovered that where we direct our attention, not the environmental conditions alone, determines which specific areas we develop and redevelop. Our attention changes the anatomy; it is the land developer and construction crew all in one.
The developed landscape of our brain determines how it will function. This ability to change the landscape of our brains and ultimately augment how our minds will operate is called neuroplasticity. We are constantly, willingly, changing the structure of our most fascinating organ as we move our attention here and there. At any moment we can be commanding areas to be restructured and modify the direction of our "empire."
All mental exercises will have this effect, and the areas they influence depends on the skills we are using. This certainly adds a level of complexity to the whole "nature or nurture" question of how our personalities and talents are shaped.
We've also discovered that once a skill can be done without attention, our brains stop shaping those areas. Our brain figures that part of our "empire" is working just fine, puts that area on auto-pilot, and directs its resources elsewhere. Walking is a great example: after we've learned to walk well we can practically ignore that we're doing it, and the complex movements don't change much. We don't walk better, even though we constantly practice. We all trip and roll our ankles from time to time, but unless we have a severe injury our brains stick with what worked in the past.
Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity
“So, what does neuroplasticity have to do with meditation?" I'm glad you asked! It is useful to develop our concentration through meditation, focusing and refocusing our attention. Through meditation we learn to engage areas of our brains that are otherwise rarely used in our day to day life. Though each technique will have unique effects, all meditations have the common theme of gradually quieting our minds and allowing us to feel a connection to the present moment.
By using our attention during a mindful meditation, we are training our brain to become more and more connected to the current moment. This has the effect of allowing ourselves to see what's actually happening, without getting caught in our opinion of the situation. In the current moment we disengage from the pull of memories, fantasies and worries and this is likely why many forms of meditation can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation works on similar brain centers as those affected by anti-depressants.
So, if you are considering sitting for a meditation and wondering "What the hell am I doing this for anyway?" remember that you're changing the structures of your brain. Your improvements to these areas, though laborious, will provide your "empire" with prosperity for years to come.
Mindfulness meditation differs from other forms by promoting concentration on current, physical sensations instead of letting the mind roam free. Recent studies suggest mindfulness meditation works the brain the way a good workout regimen works the body - minus the buckets of sweat, of course. But rather than building muscle, M.R.I. scans show this form of meditation increases the brain’s gray matter in regions closely associated with memory, learning, and emotional regulation. Studies also suggest mindfulness meditation reduces brain activity in areas responsible for anxiety, stress, and perceptions of pain. If only we’d known about this back in Calculus class....
Mindfulness meditators’ brains have also demonstrated an enhanced ability to suppress distractions, allowing the brain to better interpret, categorize, and respond to a variety of stimuli. After focusing on otherwise ignored actions like breathing, meditators’ brains are primed to be extra perceptive in everyday life. Definitely a useful advantage in an over-stimulating, strobe light-friendly world.
Mindfulness and Structural Brain Changes
Numerous research studies have demonstrated that the following changes in the structures of the brain can be seen when people practice mindfulness meditation:
Activation of brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control.
Decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.
Stronger activation levels in the temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy.
Change in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula.
Thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration.
A higher amount of grey-matter in the hippocampus, an area that is important with regard to traits like introspection, self-awareness, and compassion and for memory led learning.
Ramped-up activation of a brain region thought to be responsible for generating positive emotions, called the left-sided anterior region. Heather Urry and colleagues correlated left prefrontal asymmetry, as evidenced in both the mindfulness and loving kindness forms of meditation, with eudaimonic well-being, defined by Siegel as enveloping "the psychological qualities of autonomy, mastery of the environment, positive relationships, personal growth, self-acceptance, and meaning and purpose in life".
This left anterior activity has also been correlated with resilience, the capacity to rebound after particularly negative experiences (Davidson, et al), which would make mindfulness meditation a viable modality in the treatment of bipolar affective disorder, sufferers of which can experience great difficulty in rebounding after difficult depressive periods.
Decreased activity in an area of the brain called the default mode network, a region that is usually at work when the mind wanders. A wandering mind is also an unhappy one. This is because when our minds are wandering, most of us are worrying rather than living in the moment. The psychological hallmark of many forms of mental illness - anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia - is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts, specifically the negative ones. These disorders are linked with overactivity or faulty neurological wiring in the default mode network, the brain region that is less active in meditators.
*Artwork by Michael Parkes