Mindfulness has become somewhat of a buzzword in the last few decades, but did you know that the origins of the practice stretch back thousands of years to foundations in ancient eastern philosophies? The process of creating modern mindfulness is attributed to John Kabat-Zinn, known today as the Father of Mindfulness. In the 1970s he combined his studies of yoga and Buddhist teaching with scientific research to distil the secular elements of these practices that produced the evidence based technique known as mindfulness. This has since swept the globe and is practiced by millions today. This mindfulness can be simply defined as paying attention to the present moment without judgement, a simple concept that has since generated an abundance or scientific research.
The scientific evidence base for mindfulness benefits has contributed to its uptake and application to fields far and wide from personal practice, to healthcare, education, and the military. Today the practice has been found to be effective in the management of stress, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, heart disease, blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep regulation, gastrointestinal difficulties, healthy weight, addiction, enhanced mental focus, academic attainment, resilience, job satisfaction, job performance and burnout, enhanced prosocial behaviours and interpersonal relationships but to name a few. It’s use has even been found to reduce implicit age and racial bias and improve accuracy of military targets by soldiers.
Such far reaching benefits are truly curious, and delving deeper into the effects of mindfulness on the brain can help us to understand how the practice can benefit so many different areas of our lives. Our brains possess the innate ability to create new neural pathways and change and adapt their structure over time as a result of our experiences and our thoughts. This is known as neuroplasticity and is the process that allows mindfulness to have such a profound effect on our brain functioning and therefore emotions and behaviours.
There are three key stages in the process of neuroplasticity. The first is a change in the transfer of chemical signals between brain neurons which accounts for short term changes. If this takes place often enough these neurons will enter the second phase creating new connections and pathways leading to structural changes such as an increase or decrease in the size of brain areas related to particular brain functions. The third and final phase is a change in functionality of these altered structures which means that the more you use a specific brain region the easier it is to trigger it’s use again!
This neuroplasticity is what allows our thoughts to shape and change our brains. If we worry regularly for example, this will strengthen the neural pathways in our brain which support worrying, so we will continue to become even better at worrying! On the other hand, if we can practice concentration, being calm and focused we can strengthen connective networks in the brain that support this mindset instead.
Studies comparing brains of individuals with long term mindfulness practices to those with no practice found increased matter in brain areas involved in learning and memory (hippocampus), compassion and empathy (temporo-parietal junction), and attention, focus, self-control and problem solving (frontal lobe). In addition, changes in connections between brain areas have been found involving self-regulation and mind wandering (posterior cingulate cortex).
Contrastingly, the amygdala, an area of the brain largely responsible for fight or flight response seen when we are under stress, along with the release of our stress hormones and chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline, was found to be significantly smaller in experienced meditators, and produced lower levels of stress hormones. This brain region is also known to play a role in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
It’s important to remember that in line with the three phases of brain neuroplasticity we discussed earlier, structural brain changes described above are the result of long-term daily mindfulness practice. These changes have been seen after participation in eight-week programmes, or longer. Short-term benefits of practicing mindfulness include relaxation and emotional regulation so there is still much benefit. In this way we can think of mindfulness like mental exercise. In the same way, that we would train to run a marathon by taking gradual longer-term steps to build up our physical capacity, we can begin our mindfulness journey towards a better brain by strengthening our mindfulness muscle gradually.
The most important step is to get started. Practicing mindfulness meditation for 2-10 minutes per day is enough to begin reaping benefits.
Before you begin:
Consider using a recording such as the 10 Minute Mind, free to all staff and students.
Find a comfortable place to sit where your posture can be supported.
Make sure to eliminate any distractions such as mobile phones or email notifications.
It may be helpful to set a timer so you don’t need to worry about time.
Remember that your thoughts will wander as you meditate, and that’s ok, it’s part of the process.
Close your eyes or focus on one point on the wall.
Take a few deep breaths to focus your attention inwards towards the breath. Notice how it enters through your nose flowing deep into your lungs and passes back out through your airways.
Allow your breathing to return to normal and continue to focus your attention towards the flow of air in and out as your lungs contract and expand.
Your mind will inevitably begin to wander. When this happens notice the thoughts without chasing after them or attributing judgement. Then gently return your focus back to your breathing.
Repeat this technique until your timer sounds.
There are many different techniques for practicing mindfulness meditation and integrating it into your daily life as you become more familiar with the practice. This beginners exercise may seem challenging at first and so it might be helpful to begin with just a few minutes a day, building up gradually. Practicing with a group can also make the experience more rewarding and deepen our understanding of the practice as we share our learning with others. City’s Centre for Excellence in Mindfulness Research hosts one such free drop-in group (now online) and may be a just the place to start!