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How Mindfulness And Meditation Affect the Brain

Neuroplasticity, commonly referred to as brain plasticity, is the nervous system's ability to change the physical properties of your brain in response to a stimulus. It can happen after a life-changing experience, a trauma, or through minor everyday activities, such as using your non-dominant hand or learning to play an instrument.


Changing your brain's structure is a popular idea in mindfulness meditation circles, but what does the research say?


Let's explore how mindfulness affects your brain by reviewing recent studies.



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Can Mindfulness Meditation Physically Change the Structure of Your Brain?

The brain's ability to change its structure through activities such as yoga and physical exercise is widely acknowledged and accepted. However, we're still examining mindfulness's more subtle effect on our brains.


An often-cited 2010 study suggests that participants of an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program saw increased grey matter concentrations in the left hippocampus, 

a crucial region of the brain responsible for facilitating the formation of new memories and regulating emotions. This exciting finding further underscores the potential benefits of engaging in mindfulness practices, highlighting their capacity to positively impact our cognitive and emotional well-being at a neurological level.


Yet, a compelling 2022 study conducted by Kral, Davis, et al. examines the previous paper, highlighting its limited methodology and small sample size.


MBSR participants did have minor changes in the amygdala, which controls the fight-or-flight response. This is a natural physiological reaction that occurs when individuals perceive threats or encounter stressful situations. During this response, the amygdala assumes a critical role in mobilising the body's resources, enabling immediate action to confront the perceived danger or to escape from it. The subtle changes observed in the amygdala among participants of MBSR programs indicate that engaging in such mindfulness-based practices (MBP) may have a meaningful influence on regulating and modulating this instinctive response. Consequently, this impact has the potential to foster more adaptive and balanced reactions to daily stressors.


The Long-Term Impact of Mindfulness

Richard J. Davidson, who also participated in the study, explains that 8-week programmes aren’t long enough to observe significant structural changes. Participants need to practise mindfulness on a continuing basis to realise the benefits. 


Still, MBSR training can provide a solid foundation for the benefits associated with long-term mindfulness meditation. Supporting this, a 2018 study highlights the lasting effects of regular meditation. 


The researchers found that frequent meditators had higher activity and interconnectivity with other parts of the brain in the right hippocampus, which is linked to prospective memory — the ability to remember actions for future events.


In other words, by practising mindfulness meditation, you're rewiring your brain and how the brain responds. 


How do our brains adapt over time


Our brains tend to adapt to our thinking patterns. You've likely noticed that the more you worry and have feelings of anxiety, the more those negative thoughts keep coming back.


Similarly, by practising mindfulness meditation, we can wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional and physical processes. The goal of any mindfulness practice is to deliberately pay attention to thoughts and sensations without judgement. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. When we practise sitting meditation, we try to let go of any need to accomplish anything. We know that by being aware of our breath we can calm our mind and calm our body. Each time the mind wanders, we gently bring it back to the breath and breathing.


This also trains your brain to observe your emotions and look at them from a different perspective. You'll have more control over your emotions, allowing you to respond more wisely.  


Influencing how our brain functions is a skill, as a good portion of our decision-making is unconscious, up to 95% by some estimates.


Practise mindfulness long term to change how you handle stress


It is important that mindfulness techniques are recognised as most beneficial when performed over prolonged periods. While there are some immediate changes to the brain during and after mindfulness sessions, when practised over time, we can experience improvement in how we handle stress, form and maintain relationships, and set meaningful, value-based goals for how we wish to live our lives.


Are you interested in learning more about mindfulness?




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