How does mindfulness work, in scientific terms? Can it actually change the brain and the way you react to situations? The answer is yes. In recent years, there has been an explosion of research showing that mindfulness practice can change the function and the structure of the brain. Science even demonstrates which parts of the brain are affected by mindfulness practice and how these amazing changes can benefit our minds and bodies.
Here are some ways that mindfulness impacts your brain, and subsequently your well-being:
Mindfulness can change the brain for the better. Recent studies using brain imagining techniques have shown positive changes in brain structure and activity after participation in mindfulness practices. The images indicated greater blood flow and a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas linked with attention and emotions. The research has also shown that the changes in participants’ brains corresponded to the number of hours they spent practicing mindfulness. The more they practiced, the more the brain changed. The brain’s ability to adapt is called neuroplasticity, meaning the brain has pliability and can change with experience. A consistent practice of mindfulness can create new pathways in the brain, resulting in improved mental health, physical health, and well-being.
Mindfulness keeps our brains young. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, found that mindfulness can keep your brain from shrinking as you age. Research demonstrates that the cortex shrinks as you age, but the prefrontal cortex of fifty-year-old mindfulness practitioners had the same amount of gray matter as those who were twenty-five years old. Furthermore, this was true for individuals who had been practicing mindfulness for only eight weeks. Just imagine the benefits that children’s brains are receiving by learning a mindfulness practice early in life!
Mindfulness increases resiliency. Electrical changes have been noted in the left frontal portion of the brain following mindfulness training, which scientists believe is linked to enhanced resilience. Resilience is the ability to cope in challenging situations and bounce back from adversity. Mindful children can deal with difficult emotions without shutting down and are able to bounce back quicker from disappointment.
Mindfulness keeps us healthy. Another benefit of regular mindfulness practice is that it enhances the body’s ability to fight off infection. How does mindfulness improve the immune system? Mindfulness reduces stress and encourages relaxation—this, in turn, reduces harmful stress hormones, which produce inflammation in the body. Chronic stress and inflammation lead to illness and can have serious detrimental effects on overall health.
Mindfulness strengthens sensory regions of the brain. Lazar also found increased gray matter in sensory and auditory regions of the brain, and decreases in the amygdala. The amygdala is a lower brain center responsible for “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to stress. When you practice mindfulness, on the other hand, you are paying attention to your senses, listening to sounds, and focusing on breathing. When you are in the present moment, you grow gray matter in sensory regions and rely on calm decision- making processes instead of knee-jerk reactions.
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