Mindfulness and the Brain
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Part of my research involves studying how the brain is activated during mindfulness meditation practice and what neurological changes take place as a consequence of this activation. The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) and the synchronization of brain waves are the two areas I will be focusing on in this blog.
The PFC is known as the rational part of the brain. It enables us to maintain concentration, create complex strategic plans and process the barrage of external stimuli that we are almost perpetually bombarded with in today’s fast paced world. Another very important function of the PFC is that it enables us to consciously process experiences and information; we can also ‘play out’ social scenarios forming ‘potential outcome’ hypothesis – for example: if I openly correct my boss’ mistake during this meeting how might that impact on my future career progression? A ‘normal’ functioning PFC will guide us toward selecting the correct answer.
However, there is a part of our brain which can sabotage or ‘mislead’ the PFC in its decision-making process. The amygdale, located in the temporal section of the brain, is responsible for controlling emotional responses, initiating survival instincts and memory. This part of the brain in certain situations can hijack the PFC thus inhibiting our ability to make a rational or logical decision – and instead of keeping our mouth shut during that meeting we instead choose to correct our boss and subsequently find ourselves chained to the photocopier for the next ten years.
The reason this happens, quite simply, is because the amygdale acts as the gate keeper for any and all external stimuli we receive. So, if we’ve been nettled by our boss’ foolish comments we tend to act emotionally (amygdale) before we act reason-ably (PFC). It should come as no surprise, then, that we can sometimes make social bloopers. The amygdala not only responds to our flight/fight/freeze situations, but the memories that are processed alongside these emotions. This means that when a memory is recalled we also experience the emotions and the physiological effects we felt when we first experienced it.
Mindfulness meditation, however, has been shown to better able us to mediate our wayward amygdales. Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, said that ‘Between Stimulus and Response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.’ Mindfulness meditation supports this action by increasing our attention and self-awareness. This enables us to respond rationally rather than emotionally. A skill that takes a bit of practice, but once cultivated enhances our self-control.
This ties in nicely with the synchronization of brain waves. Slower and synchronized brain waves evidence the increased space between thoughts, therefore increasing the space for us to consider our response. Research has shown that Buddhist Monks, who regularly practiced meditation, when compared to a group of students, that didn’t meditate, had significantly more synchronized brain waves (Davidson et al, 2004). This also supports previous research evidencing that individuals with PTSD are more likely to have uncoordinated brain waves. It has been suggested that one of the causes could be an inability to focus in the present due to being imprisoned in the past (Bessel Van Der Kolk, 2014).
For a long time, the brain was believed to be unchangeable and inflexible. We now know this is far from true. The brain has been shown to be amazingly adaptable to change, which is called neuroplasticity. And if we use the right techniques we can, instead of being a slave to the caprices of our emotions, learn to live in relative harmony with our brains.