Mindfulness consists of a mix of physical dynamic yoga exercises and meditation exercises and comes from the 2,500 year old Buddhist teachings of North India.
Mindfulness means being aware in every moment on a physical, emotional and mental level, without disturbing emotions. Disturbing emotions are for example: judgments, stress, fear, anger, jealousy, too many thoughts, sadness, addictions, loneliness, dissatisfaction etc.
Much research has been done into the effects of meditation, and the evidence is irrefutable: meditation is good for you. It provides better connections between your brain cells and faster processing of information. Also, it increases the amount of ‘Grey matter’ associated with positive emotions, emotional stability and better cognitive functions. On top of that, you’ll have a better concentration, your immune system gets stronger and the amount of stress hormone cortisol will be lower.
Neuroscientists at the University of Harvard, among others, have been investigating the brain to be able to demonstrate these benefits and have investigated the differences between people who meditate and those who do not.
A team of scientists from the University of British Columbia and Chemnitz University of Technology, were able to extract data from more than 20 studies to determine which parts of the brain are consistently affected. At least 8 areas of the brain are identified!
What Happens In Your Brain During Meditation?
To answer that question, we must first look at brain waves. This is the electrical activity that takes place in our brains at any time of the day. There are five types of brain waves:
– Gamma waves: occur when you’re very alert and (hyper)active. In this state you can learn well and remember information, but it is also associated with anxiety and stress.
– Beta waves: the alert state of being, which occurs during (busy) work, analyzing, planning, concentrating and at stressful moments.
– Alpha waves: when you close your eyes your brain waves slow down. This also happens, for example, if you have been in nature or have just had a yoga class. You are relaxed and your mind feels clear.
– Theta waves: waves associated with sleeping and daydreaming. In this state you are more intuitive, creative and in strong contact with your emotions.
– Delta Waves: the slowest brain waves observed during deep, dreamless sleep. It is in this state that your body recovers best.
Most of the day you function at beta level. You are ‘on’, as it were. Give yourself some rest by turning your attention inside out. Research shows that during meditation there are more alpha waves and especially more theta waves. So you are more relaxed and in contact with your inner world (as opposed to alert and in contact with the outside world).
We will now focus on 2 parts of the brain, the cortex and the hippocampus, which are of special importance in relation to mindfulness.
1. The Cerebal Cortex (Cortex Cerebri)
This is the area in the brain where information from the rest of the body is received, analyzed and interpreted.
Subsequently, this interpreted information in the cerebral cortex is converted back into thoughts (inner speech and mental images) and concrete controls of the body (speaking and acting).
The cerebral cortex consists of 4 major lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital.
It’s located deep in the forehead, behind the frontal lobe brain. The cortex is associated with self-direction, which means being able to perceive and behave directly and correctly at the moment and react flexibly with great adaptability.
People who do not meditate show less good skills in solving problems and adapting their behavior at the moment. The ones that meditate show greater self-determinism at the moment, are less distracted, make better decisions and give more correct answers than people who do not meditate.
The mediators have greater activity in the cortex than the non-mediators. In relation to this high activity, mediators are better able to learn from experiences and make better decisions. This can be important to know if the environmental factors are uncertain or rapidly changing. Meditating or mindfulness could then help.
2. The Hippocampus (Seahorse)
This is located on the inside (the medial plane) of the temporal lobe, against the gyrus parahippocampalis. One is present in both hemispheres of the brain, and the structure is named after the seahorse, or hippocampus, because of the curved shape of these parts of the brain.
The hippocampus is anatomically part of the limbic system. There has been found an increase in Grey matter in the brains of the participants in a mindfulness training.
The hippocampus is associated with emotions, your motivation and your memory and regulates the balance of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands.
A high amount of this stress hormone in the blood (sometimes combined with high breathing) causes a primary fight/flight mind and behavior pattern. This is not beneficial to be in this state all the time. Too much cortisol in the blood also reduces the process of healing.
It is not healthy to suffer from too high a level of cortisol all day long.
People who suffer from chronic stress can damage the hippocampus. The hippocampus is then smaller and the amount of cortisol cannot be balanced properly. Meditators experience less stress and have a better balance in the blood of the cortisol stress hormone compared to non-mediators.
Change The Structure Of Your Brain
In addition to an increase in brain activity in the areas mentioned, there’s also a change in the brain structure:
you make new connections in your brain.
For example, you increase the connections in the prefrontal cortex between the part that looks at input from a rational perspective and physical sensations. In concrete terms, this means that your brain does not immediately think that something is seriously wrong when you experience physical discomfort or something potentially threatening.
It also strengthens the connections between the part of the prefrontal cortex that processes information about you and the part that processes what is about others that you consider to be different from you. This affects your empathy ability and, in turn, your feelings of happiness.
Because of the development of more branches and connections between brain cells, the cerebral cortex becomes thicker. People who meditate also have a larger prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.
In this TedTalk, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar demonstrates with brain scans that meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improve our memory and make us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.
Keep Your Brain Healthy
Mindfulness should no longer be considered “nice to have” but a “must have”.
It’s a way to keep your brain healthy, increase our self-management capacity and make better decisions and protect us from too much stress and therefore live happier and healthier lives.
You too can integrate it into your daily life. So sit down and take a deep breath in and out. 😉
Let me know which meditation benefits you experience yourself! Or maybe reading about the science behind it, has finally convinced you to start with it? Leave your comments below.