3. Mindfulness

What’s happening in my brain when I’m mindful?

Exactly how the brain works is still something of a mystery to scientists. We understand there are areas of the brain that are responsible for specific functions. The frontal lobe, for example, is where future planning takes place. We also know there are many connections between these areas. Despite having some knowledge, we’re still piecing together exactly how this produces thoughts and feelings.

Nevertheless, evidence has linked practising mindfulness to changes in many parts of the brain. Some research suggests that mindfulness can affect the production of chemicals that change our mood. Other evidence shows that connections between different regions of the brain change when we are mindful.

A changing brain

Scientists have used MRI scans to discover how the brain changes when people practise mindfulness, showing some fascinating results. Evidence suggests that particular areas of the brain may either shrink or grow in response to regular mindfulness practice. Here are a few examples.

  • Mindfulness and stress. Research shows that after practising mindfulness, the grey matter in your brain’s amygdala – a region known for its role in stress – can become smaller.
  • Mindfulness and creativity. The pre-frontal cortex is the area of your brain responsible for things like planning, problem solving, and controlling your emotions. The grey matter in this area can become thicker after practising mindfulness, showing increased activity in these areas of thought.
  • Mindfulness and memory. An area of the brain known as the hippocampus helps your memory and learning. This area can also become thicker after practising mindfulness.

Pain-busting

The examples above only focus on specific areas of the brain. In reality, the brain and body come together to act as a whole. They communicate and work together, occasionally in ways we don’t expect. How we experience pain can be greatly affected by mindfulness.

There is a very strong link between how much pain we feel and our memories of pain. When we feel pain, we create a memory of it. The next time we feel the same pain, our memories of the pain can make it feel worse.

One study found that mindfulness experts reported feeling less pain than people who didn’t practise mindfulness. Interestingly, in these people the areas of the brain that are associated with pain didn’t shrink. Instead, the areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory were less active. It seems that mindfulness may have reduced the connectivity between these two areas of the brain. By not drawing on past memories of pain, the experts were able to feel less pain.

This small example shows us just how complicated the brain can be! In fact, the brain works in far more elaborate ways than this. As we increasingly understand how it works, we can understand how mindfulness affects the brain.

The future

As research continues, we are realising that there are very real changes happening in the brain due to mindfulness. Some of these are simple and others can be complicated and unexpected. From the evidence we can be sure that mindfulness really is helping us change our minds for the better.