Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, fully aware of where we are and what we’re doing. We are fully capable of not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, and it is more readily accessible when we practice on a regular basis.
Whenever we bring awareness to what we’re directly experiencing through all our senses, we’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when we train your brain to be mindful, we’re actually remodeling the physical structure of our brain.
Studies show that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes perfect sense. When we’re mindful, we pay attention to our surroundings, sounds, our present experience and even our breathing. We shut down cognition so our senses can be enhanced.
Other research shows more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision-making. It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we age – making it harder to remember where we put our keys or figuring out how to get around on our own. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
But what if it’s the case that people with more gray matter just stick to meditation longer? A follow-up study shows this isn’t the case.
They took people who have never meditated before, and put one group through an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Just after 8 weeks, researchers found differences in brain volume in 5 different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, they found thickening in 4 regions.
Here’s what neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School Harvard researcher, Sara Lazar found:
- The main difference to the brain was found in the posterior cingulate – which is involved in mind wandering and self-relevance.
- The left hippocampus also saw changes. This is integral to learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
- Also affected was the temporo parietal junction (TPJ) which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
- The area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
- And finally, a shrinkage in the amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain which is important for reduced anxiety, fear and stress.
We all already have the capacity to be present, and it doesn’t require us to change who we are. But we can cultivate these innate qualities with simple practices that are scientifically demonstrated to benefit us in many ways.