The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

The human brain is organized into a hierarchy. The oldest parts control the more primitive, instinctual behavioral reflexes whilst the newest parts control the most sophisticated cognitive. That’s the thinking parts. sensory motor functions of the brain is made up of three main blocks, the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain. The hindbrain is located at the bottom of the brain, next to the spinal cord, and it’s responsible for automatic physiological reflexes that control breathing, heart rate, digestion, and coordinates movements and sense perception. The midbrain is located in the center of the brain. It contains neurons responsible for temperature control and the fine tuning of movement as it relates sensory information from the body sensory organs to the forebrain. It also plays an important part of the limbic system. This is a group of brain structures associated with the expression of emotion. The hind brain in the midbrain are the most primitive parts of the brain, and they share near identical brain structures to our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, the newest part of the brain is the forebrain. This is composed of the cerebral hemispheres which cover the surface of the brain. It also consists of the hypothalamus and the thalamus, the neurons of the forebrain control cognitive, sensory and motor function as well as regulating reproductive functions, eating, sleeping and the display of emotion. Emotions are triggered in the brain by thoughts which are often unconscious. Many conventional patterns of thinking are held in neuro circuits in the primitive parts of the brain. The basal ganglia are situated at the base of the forebrain and these manage the semi automatic activities such as walking or driving the things we don’t have to think about too much when we’re doing them because they become habits. The amygdala are responsible for filtering emotions such as happiness, fear and anger. Information processed in these parts are often not brought to conscious attention. When we’re confronted by a potential threat, this can trigger an emotion such as anger, and the urge to fight, it can trigger fear, the urge to flee. This is more commonly known as the flight or fight response. Occasionally, the emotions are so intense that the amygdala becomes overwhelmed and we freeze. This is called an amygdala hijack, the reaction is often disproportionate to the actual provocation. When in the grip of these emotions, your capability for higher rational thinking is diminished, and you’re likely to revert to these habitual behaviors. This is stored in the basal ganglia. Although you may often hear reference to left brain thinking or right brain thinking there are extensive connections between the two brain hemispheres and information is processed by using both hemispheres of the brain. imaging studies have shown that most cognitive tasks most tasks requiring thinking such as problem solving or strategic planning, activate neurons in more than one brain region simultaneously, or at least in close succession. For simplicity of explanation, the left hemisphere is associated with analytical, rational and logical processing. Whereas the right hemisphere is associated with more abstract thought, non verbal awareness, visual and spatial perception and the expression of modulation of emotions. In the Western world, most people navigate through their everyday life in a fashion dominated by left brain thinking, missing out on right brain activity. And this results in too much thinking going on, too much frantic doing and not enough being. practicing mindfulness can bring about calmness, stilling the mind chatter, and helping to shift towards right brain mode. The intentions clear your mind of thoughts increases activity in an area of the prefrontal cortex, known as the attention Association area. This is located in the frontal lobe above your eyes. At the same time activity in the region surrounding the attention Association area decreases. This is the result of focused attention and reflects the filtering out of all information that’s not deemed important. attention is drawn to the present now experience and this time is a shift to right brain activity as attention is predominantly a right brain function. This shift from left brain thinking is an explanation of why the experience can’t be described or analyzed. The right brain does not have the ability to categorize and to analyze the experience its intuitively feels. As you become less aware of sensory information stemming from your external environment, there’s a decrease in the activity in the right parietal lobe, and this is located at the top of the brain at the ground. This has an impact on activity in the right verbal conceptual area, leading to an inability to convey the experience efficiently through language. There are extensive connections between the right parietal lobes orientation, Association area and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is located at the temporal lobe near the ear. activation of the hippocampus conveys emotional significance to the experience and implants this into long term memory. The amygdala realigned from dealing with signals from the prefrontal cortex to signals from their campus. The amygdala confers emotional significance to the lack of sensory information. First, a blissful peaceful state arises from the maximal activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Then, as the different neural, hormonal and other triggers kick in, there’s a maximal activation of the sympathetic nervous system, producing a mentally clear and alert state. physiological effects such as the changes to breathing, heart rate or blood pressure, are the result of the amygdalas effect or midbrain structures that control these functions. Recent research in neuroscience has demonstrated that the neural connections of the brain are highly plastic, so you can create new pathways through the brain and rewire your brain. Mindfulness strengthens the left prefrontal cortex and increases white matter between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, improving focus and memory. The practice of mindfulness helps you to recognize and observe your thought patterns and to develop the ability to recognize when thoughts arise and observe them in a detached manner. In other words, without the need to become involved in them, so not triggering an emotional reaction. By regularly practicing mindfulness you develop strong neural pathways connected with this activity in your brain, which makes it easier for you to recognize when thoughts arise, and this can help you to identify the source of a strong emotion as it’s triggered, and choose much more effective ways to respond. Once you learn to become more impartial, you can recognize old habitual patterns that no longer serve you well, and you reshape those patterns into new directions. Whilst practicing mindfulness may be uncomfortable at first, it’s got the capability to rewire your thinking systems, and this makes new ways of thinking that previously felt unfamiliar and uncomfortable, become habitual.