Mindfulness under the microscope: neuroplasticity and re-organising your brain

Practise mindfulness to change your brain for the better

For decades now, researchers have been investigating the science behind the benefits of practising mindfulness. Scientists studying the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain have found that regular practice changes the both structure and the functioning of the brain – leading to things like improved memory and concentration and better resilience to stress. In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the research findings.

What is neuroplasticity?

‘Neuroplasticity’ describes the brain’s ability to change continuously throughout an individual’s life. It’s been described as the ‘muscle-building’ ability of the brain.

In What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains, Courtney E. Ackerman writes:

When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something we can encourage and stimulate.”

Leslie Riopel, Professor of Psychology at Northwood University, writing on positivepsychology.com, says:

Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reorganize itself. It does this by forming new neural connections throughout our life…. By applying neuroplasticity, you can essentially ‘re-wire’ and ‘hardwire’ the brain helping you achieve greater levels of peace, health, happiness, and joy.”

As with any other muscles, if you exercise certain parts of your brain, they become stronger; if you don’t exercise them, they fade (and, as you’ll see, the latter can sometimes be a good thing).

Changing the shape of your brain

Even after as little as eight weeks, a regular mindfulness practice can change the size of key parts of your brain, improving your memory and making you more resilient when under stress, for example.

A study by neuroscientists at Harvard University, published in 2011 in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, used MRI scans to measure changes in the brains of people taking part in an eight-week mindfulness course. They compared these scans with those of a group of people who were not practising meditation.

Analysis of the MR images showed changes in the brains of the meditators that did not appear in those from the non-meditating group. Sue McGreevey, writing for The Harvard Gazette, summarises what the researchers found in the group who were practising mindfulness meditation:

… increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress…”

These changes were not seen in the control group; the brain changes were not simply a result of the passage of time.

Changing connections in your brain

Tom Ireland, writing for Scientific American® in 2014, reported that researchers using brain imaging techniques had shown that practising mindfulness changes not only the shape of our brains but also how different regions of our brains communicate with each other, leading to permanent changes in the way we think.

As in the 2011 study from Harvard University, researchers noted that, after an eight-week mindfulness course, the amygdala – the region of the brain associated with fear and emotional processes – seemed to shrink. The amygdala has an important role in kick-starting the body’s response to stress. It seems that, the smaller the amygdala becomes, the better people react to stress.

The 2014 research also showed that, at the same time as the amygdala shrinks, the brain’s pre-frontal cortex thickens. This area of the brain is associated with what Tom calls ‘higher order brain functions,’ such as awareness, concentration and decision-making.

In addition to these changes, though, the connectivity between these two areas of the brain also changes: the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

As Tom writes, “In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.” That’s surely something we could all benefit from.

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