Mindfulness Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Positive Effects on the Brain by Dr. Catherine Buchan
It was previously thought the brain was fully developed by the time we reached adulthood and that it slowly degenerated over time as we age. However, we now know it actually continues to develop and change throughout our lives. The brains capacity to create new neural pathways and grow neurons following experiences is known as “neuroplasticity” (Siegel, 2010). Hence, if we develop a brain injury in one part of our brain, other parts of the brain can develop to compensate for loss in that area. Equally, if we have problems with attention, or our emotions (i.e. depression, anxiety) or if we are struggling to feel compassion for others (compassion fatigue, for example), research shows we can change and make positive improvements in these areas.
Neuroplasticity only happens though in response to experience (Siegel, 2010), meaning we need to actually do something to facilitate it. Meditation is one of the activities we can do to help this. Practicing mindfulness meditation means paying full attention to the present moment experience, in addition to being open, non-reactive, and accepting of what is actually being experienced in the moment (Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn, 2008).
Mindfulness meditation is most often connected with activation in the Pre-Frontal Cortex PFC) and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), areas of the brain which relate to attention and emotion regulation (or balance), amongst other activities (Chiesa & Serretti, 2010). In other words, the function of these two areas, which are closely connected to each other, is improved along with an increase in their activity, with regular meditation practice (Wilson,
Research suggests meditation helps improve two different types of attention, namely “concentrative”, focusing on the breath for example, and “receptive”, involving sustaining attention on the present moment of experience only (Jha, Krompinger & Baime, 2007). The benefit of this is that it seems we ruminate less, which helps us to experience better mental well-being (Wolkin, 2015). The brain has a “negativity bias”, meaning it focuses its attention on the negative. Mindfulness meditation has been found to be associated with a reduction in this negativity bias and an increase in optimism in those who practice it (Kiken & Shook, 2011), which may explain in part why it is linked to improved well-being too.
Meditation also helps with emotional balance, because it seems to be an important element with regards to assisting people in handling difficult emotions (Jones, Bodie & Hughes, 2016). It seems to decrease emotional reactivity as it increases activity in the part of the brain (the PFC) responsible for regulating our emotions, for example (Chiesa & Serretti, 2010). Essential characteristics of compassion are kindness, being able to tolerate distress and empathise with others (Beaumont et al., 2016). However, it is difficult to tolerate distress when our “threat system” is constantly triggered (such as when we experience chronic stress), which then hinders our feelings of compassion towards others (Gilbert, 2009). But, because practicing mindfulness meditation reduces the activation of our threat system (and the amygdala activation in particular) (Hözel, et al., 2011), it helps counteract this.
Additionally, research has found that experienced meditators doing a loving-kindness meditation practice demonstrated an increase in “empathic neural responses” as they listened to sounds of other people’s suffering during it, compared to those in the control group (Lutz, Brefczynsi-Lewis, et al., 2008). Hence, they experienced greater empathy for them and potentially an increase therefore in compassion. Additionally, even short mindfulness meditation practices have been shown to increase compassionate behaviour (Lim et al., 2015).
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Wolkin, J. R. (2015). Cultivating multiple aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation accounts for psychological well-being through decreased rumination.
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