The Pillars of Brain Health: Mindfulness

The Pillars of Brain Health: Mindfulness

Our bodies have limits to what they can handle, both physically and mentally. While our physical limitations are often obvious, mental and psychological limitations are often harder to discern.

Because of this, it is important to slow down and remember to care for ourselves – both inside and out. Just as there are exercises to improve physical health, there are also training techniques that can be employed to improve brain health.

Meditation Can Change Your Brain

The term “mindfulness” is a millennia old concept; it’s generally defined as a mental state characterized by non-judgmental attention and openness to experiences as they occur in the present moment. 

Mindfulness meditation is one family of meditation that has been of interest to the neuroscience community in recent decades, as research has shown that this type of meditation can actually alter multiple aspects of brain physiology and function in both beginner and advanced practitioners.

Meditation has myriad benefits, from promoting relaxation to heightening our sense of well-being. Mindfulness meditation training has even been shown to prevent relapse in those with depression.

Using structural neuroimaging studies, meditation has been shown to consistently increase the size or density of eight different brain regions. These regions include the frontopolar cortex (associated with meta-awareness), the sensory cortices and insula (related to body-specific awareness), the hippocampus (involved in memory processes), and other areas associated with emotion and self-regulation. Meditation is also shown to alter neuroplasticity within brain regions involved in attention, control, and executive processing. These findings speak to the extensive effects of meditation on the human brain.

In addition to altering physical properties of the brain itself, meditation can improve emotion regulation. Reports show that meditative practices have positive effects on emotional processing and mood. Scientists suspect the positive benefit occurs as a result of strengthened prefrontal cognitive control mechanisms that decrease activity in brain regions associated with negative emotional response, such as the amygdala.

Mindfulness meditation training can also be used as a stress reduction method and has even been shown to prevent relapse in those with depression.

Cognitive Benefits: Not Just for Monks

Although the majority of structural effects are observed in the brains of individuals who have been regularly practicing meditation for several years, one does not have to be experienced in order to begin feeling the cognitive benefits of meditation. For example, researchers demonstrated people can have improved attention after only five days of daily 20-minute meditation sessions. Additionally, meditators can experience improved alertness, anxiety, stress response, and general quality of life after only two months of training.

Carving out 20 minutes a day to "do nothing" can feel like a feat or, simply, impossible. When you do, know that your actions have a ripple effect that start with a calmer mind and extend outward to a healthier brain.

The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation:
8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review: S0278262616301312