Week 10 / Impact of “Mindfulness” on Brain Structure

The previous guest lecturers provided some rather interesting videos on body language (comparing that of chimps to a human’s), as well as physical, interactive gestures. One that stood out to me in particular was the gesture guided by Deborah Forster: through the simplest of movements, combined with contemplation on and awareness of the body’s position, many students claimed afterwards that they felt their perspective had been enhanced.

This exercise reminded me of an article on “mindfulness meditation” that I recently found while researching motion and gesture in preparation for the lecture. In mindfulness training, one intentionally focuses on their “emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment,” a practice derived from Buddhist Vipassana meditation where one aims to gain insight through mindfulness (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). This is much like what we did during lecture, where we consciously focused on body movements such as breathing patterns, position of limbs, weight of one’s feet resting flat on the floor, or the curve of the spine as one bends forward.

Decreased size of the amygdala, shown in red, of an “expert” mindfulness meditator (Image by Adrienne Taren)

While mindfulness meditation has long been practiced as a stress-reducing technique, or as therapy for depression or anxiety, the article discusses more recent discoveries of how its regular practice restructures the human brain. In a study of expert meditators—those who’ve practiced it for at least 40,000 hours—MRI scans of these individuals reveal a shrink in the amygdala, the region of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress, our “fight-or-flight” reactions. As this section shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex, “associated with higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making,” grows larger (scientificamerican.com). This change in scale of these regions impacts their functional connectivity, or how often each is activated together with other regions; the amygdala, associated with fear and emotion, has its connections with other parts of the brain weakened, while the pre-frontal cortex, associated with concentration and attention, strengthens its connections.

The result of these size and connection changes is an increase in one’s ability “to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity”—more thoughtful responses to stress increasingly replace our usual primal ones. In addition, expert mindfulness meditators report feeling less pain. This appears to be due to the reduced size of brain regions that appraise “stimuli, emotion, and memory.” Meditators don’t seem to be blocking painful experiences, but rather have brains shaped to engage in fewer thought processes that register pain.

The study overall draws a correlation between all these changes and the hours of mindfulness meditation one has practiced. Furthermore, the participating “expert” meditators were specifically asked not to go into a meditative state during the study, during which they exhibited such brain differences. It appears that the decision-making and pain-registering changes associated with mindfulness do not require being in a meditative, trance-like state, but occur when an expert is relaxed because of their different baseline brain state. While there is much further research to be done on the science of mindfulness and its impacts, the study provides a glimpse into the practice’s use to improve health and thinking.

– Dorothy Boyd






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