I used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.
A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.
These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.
There are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.
FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND
When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.
It sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.
To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.
If you love science geekery then my weekly science podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science may well be right up your alley. It’s available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X.
I also regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on Twitter so if you’d like to follow me, please click here –> @drjacklewis
In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.
NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?
Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.
Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings / the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.
The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”
In the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).
A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.
The medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.
So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).
Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.
During my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.
My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).
On Monday 4th July Dr Jack will be back on This Morning between 10.30-12.30 (ITV1). If you’d like to recap on the memory tricks you can see his first contribution all over again by clicking here.
Later on that evening at 20.00 the first episode of his new series “The Tech Show” is launched (Discovery Science), followed immediately afterwards by the second episode at 20.30.
Monday’s item on This Morning will be all about decisions. Whether deciding what to have for lunch, what route to take to reach a destination, whether or not to resist the temptation to make that impulse purchase or the best way to avoid getting in trouble – all of us have to make literally hundreds of decisions every day.
The problem is that our brains, having remained pretty much unchanged since the Stone Age, rarely make decisions that maximise long term returns. The default setting of the brain tends towards choosing quickly, based on gut feelings, about the currently available options. People often can’t be bothered to put the effort in to figure out what’s really the best choice in the long run. So we just go on our impulses and make up explanations that fit with the choice after the decision has been made.
When hungry, stressed, excited or in a rush, people rely even more on hot, emotional, short-sighted desires to immediately get what we want. This is the state that supermarkets and other shops want you to be in so that you’re tempted by the seemingly great deals. Dr Jack will describe why the only way to make good decisions is to do it in a cold, far-sighted, rational state of mind where we can calmly consider only best option in light of what we really need in the long run. He will suggest a variety of strategies people can use to get themselves in this state of mind in order to SAVE YOU MONEY!
Just a few hours later, at 20.00 over on Discovery Science, Dr Jack showcases some of the most fascinating, amazing and sometimes bizarre new inventions, discoveries and breakthroughs from the world of science, technology and engineering enterprise. “The Tech Show” will run as pairs of back-to-back half hour episodes at 20.00, and then again at 01.00, 09.00, 12.00, 15.00… so it will fit into your schedule no matter how busy you are. As you are flicking through the channels on your satellite or cable box over the summer, don’t forget to have a little scan through the Discovery channels to see if you can catch an episode. The tone of this particular series was specifically directed to be upbeat, friendly and lighthearted, so viewers should find it stimulating without becoming overwhelmed by too much boring “techie” information. This is a flagship show for Discovery and they have high hopes for it so fingers crossed many people will get stuck in and hopefully watch the whole series. That way there’s a chance that Dr Jack will be back on Discovery for another series in the not so distant future.
If you’d like to follow Dr Jack’s daily #braintweets please click here.
On Friday nights at 8pm starting in July 2011 Dr Jack Lewis presents THE TECH SHOW on the Discovery Science channel. Here is the promotional video that Discovery will be running across Europe, Africa and the Middle East to pique people’s curiosity about this brand new flagship series:
Across 26 half-hour episodes Jack takes viewers on a journey through some of the latest technological breakthroughs in engineering, science and biomedicine. We explore new developments in robotics, renewable energy and tornado physics. We encounter a wide variety of nutty inventors, hell-bent on creating the most bizarre water, land and air-borne vehicles the world has ever seen. We see how engineering can be guided by the latest biological research by getting to the bottom of how evolution has solved various threats to survival by giving certain creatures some uniquely brilliant abilities. And we even discover what neuroscience can learn from the art of magic!
My personal favourites include the young American scientist who creates tornados in his garage, the crazy German pilot who can loop-the-loop in a helicopter and the ingenious lizard that can evade predators by burrowing into tightly packed sand in the blink of an eye by turning its body into a wave generator!