Reshaping Our Brains One Mindful Moment at a Time
Mindfulness. Whether in passing (perusing a magazine, listening to a talk show) or in direct consultation (discussing in a college classroom setting, conversing with a therapist), many of us have heard this word. ‘Mindfulness.’ Mindful eating. Mindful experiences. Mindful living. Alright, alright, alright- we understand! It’s important! But what, exactly, is “it?”
Mindfulness, as defined by Bodhipaksa, Buddhist practitioner and teacher at New Hampshire’s Aryaloka Buddhist Center, is “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience” (Bodhipaksa, 2007). When we are mindful, we fully absorb our present. We take comfort in the firm push of earth against our feet. We appreciate the steady in-and-out fluidity of our breath. We leave old “regrets” far behind us and possible “what ifs” in the future. What matters most is the here, the now. After all, it is only the ‘now’ over which we have any direct control.
Sounds nice, right? Living without misgivings, anxiety, insecurity. However, day-by-day, research is proving that mindfulness is more than just nice. In fact, it is essential for our health, productivity, and happiness and has been credited with decreasing physical ailments like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, cancer, and HIV (Ireland, 2014). What’s more, researchers believe mindful practices physically change the human brain’s composition, altering “the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other- and therefore how we think- permanently” (Ireland, 2014).
Two sections of the brain are cited as being most directly changed by mindful practices: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the hippocampus. The ACC controls self-moderation; it allows us to channel attention on internal and external stimuli and regulates responses to said stimuli. Individuals suffering damage to the ACC are frequently rash and make impulsive decisions. Alternatively, mindfulness-practicing individuals exhibit heightened ACC activity; they are able to assess situations, respond logically, and learn from past experiences (Congleton, Hölzel, and Lazar, 2015). We are all human, however, and, in our daily lives, it is not uncommon for many of us to behave impulsively. This is normal! It is therefore that much more exciting that mindfulness can actually rewire our brains and help moderate emotions!
Speaking of emotions, the second section prominently affected by mindfulness is the hippocampus, part of the brain’s limbic system and moderator of our emotion and memory. The hippocampus plays an important role in controlling stress levels and, when habitually inundated with stress and anxiety, can become damaged. For example, individuals with disorders such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD often have a smaller hippocampus. Mindfulness can help reverse damage; practices promoting conscientiousness reduce the effects of stress hormones on the hippocampus and, as a result, leave you feeling refreshed.
All in all, we see mindfulness is more than just ‘nice to have.’ With deliberate practice, it can become just as essential to your daily routine as tooth-brushing, with the added benefit of rewiring your very brain. Here at TOPPS, we encourage mindful activities like yoga or deep breathing exercises (amongst others) as these help maintain your balanced mind, balanced body!
Bodhipaksa (17 February, 2007). What is mindfulness? Retrieved from http://www.wildmind.org/applied/daily-life/what-is-mindfulness.
Congleton, C., Hölzel B., and Lazar, S. (2015, January 8). Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain.
Ireland, Tom (2014, June 12). What Does Mindfulness Do to Your Brain? Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/.