Recently there’s been a lot of talk in the psychotherapy world about Mindfulness and this article is to share what neuroscience is discovering about the brain in relation to mindfulness, as well as how mindfulness builds resilience and heals trauma by restructuring the brain.
My Experience of Mindfulness
I can honestly say the periods in my life in which I’ve experienced the most consistent level of emotional balance were times when I was involved in a regular practice of mindfulness and meditation. In the not-so-balanced periods it was a different story. When I found displeasure or disappointment in the world I’d typically be taken over by my knee-jerk reactions which usually resulted in me blaming, in making demands, reciting expectations or criticising someone for their bad behaviour. The effect of sharing my inner chaos with the outer world always ended in me ruminating over the event and leaving me with feelings of doubt, guilt or shame for having such a knee- jerk reaction. (Incidentally, I’ve just realised how the phrase ‘knee-jerk reaction’ probably gave birth to the idea of someone being a ‘jerk’).
So this begs the question, “Why, when I was committed to a practice of extended concentration and sustained focus on the breath, did it somehow enable the capacity within me to allow the tiniest flutter of inner balance to creep into my consciousness before my being caught up in an impulsive diatribe resulting in my making a fool of myself and regretting it?”
When Mindfulness and Technology Meet
Since the days when I became interested in psychology, healing and spiritual practices – all of which support a mindful way of developing consciousness – a lot of books I’d read explained the benefits of mindful practices but nothing I’d read ever explained why it worked. I should clarify that for the most part I was satisfied with the whys being explained in the philosophical, psychological, metaphysical or spiritual sense but until recently I’d never thought to seek answers to the question ‘What’s the physiological explanation as to why meditation and mindfulness work?’
In fact, until technology met with scientists who wanted to know and explore the nature of physical changes which mindfulness creates the question remained unasked. Now science is actually able to observe not only how brain development is impeded as a result of abuse or trauma but also how the affected brain can be fortified within those who are involved in an ongoing practice of focused concentration and meditation. Participants in studies have had brain scans which show actual differences within the brain before they had been introduced to mindfulness and after these same participants practiced mindfulness for a period of eight weeks (Ireland, 2014; Baime, 2011).
Mindfulness’ Affect on Three Areas of the Brain
What scientists found was that mindfulness had a very positive effect particularly on three areas of the brain linked with our emotional centre (Baime, 2011; Ireland, 2014).
These three areas are the:
- cortex: regulates thinking and reason (Graham, 2008) and is the part of our brain most recent to evolve – our ‘organ’ of consciousness and what makes us homo sapiens (McGill, n.d.)
- hippocampus: integrates perceptions and emotions into memory, especially long-term memory (Siegel, 2015; Graham, 2008)
- amygdale (there are two): respond to perceptions of fear and activate the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism (Graham, 2008) so whatever event stimulates the amygdale will surely cause a knee-jerk reaction
Since the brain is highly complex and its complexities are way beyond my scope of knowledge, for the sake of understanding and simplification I’ll concentrate on these three areas as applied to trauma and human development.
Trauma and the Brain
Trauma can be a result of one event or the result of several less severe events spread over a period of time (Richards, n.d.). The following is a description of infant brain development when exposed to long-term stress within its environment. The brain responds similarly to trauma as a result of one event in terms of flooding the brain with chemicals (stress hormones) and impact on memory as well as impact on linkages within the brain (ASCA, n.d.).
The cortex has two hemispheres, right and left, and each is responsible for processing experience in different ways. In the infant the right hemisphere develops first (Gibson, n.d.), experiencing everything non-verbally and mainly through body sensation, images and emotions. It is responsible for relational and emotional processing and is very sensitive to negative interactions in its environment. The left hemisphere catches up to the right at about 18 months of age. It experiences in a linear way through language, symbols and words. It is responsible for thought processing and is inclined towards positive interactions in its environment (Graham, 2008).
Ideally at about 12 months of age an integration of information processing between the left and right hemispheres begins to take place with most adults becoming left-brain dominant (Graham, 2008). Though if the right brain experiences extended periods of anxiety the stress hormone cortisol is released (Narvaez, 2011). High levels of cortisol affect the integration of the left and right hemispheres which results in insufficient engagement. What this means is that the individual becomes right-brained dominant, prone to negative emotions and excessively responsive to minor triggers as an adult (ASCA, n.d.).
As stated the hippocampus integrates perceptions and emotions into memory, it controls feelings, processes information and gives context to memories and events. As it carries out its processing the amygdale influence the relay of information to the cortex which is attempting to make sense of the incoming information (ASCA, n.d.). It has been found that those who’ve been brought up in an environment in which they experienced chronic stress have a smaller hippocampus. The reason being is that while the hippocampus is coated with receptors for the stress hormone cortisol it is at the same time compromised by high levels which suppress its ability to function. This is especially true of the hormones released by the ‘fight or flight’ response in the amygdale (Congleton, 2015). When the hippocampus is inhibited the transfer of information to the cortex – the reasoning, thinking centre of the brain – is not adequately carried out and this results in the cortex being unable to differentiate between a real threat and one that is imagined.
The hippocampus shows evidence of developing differently in children who experience environments where they feel unsafe or threatened. These children are more susceptible to stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol and they have a greater chance of developing as adults who have problems controlling their anger and emotions. There will be a greater likelihood that they will be highly stressed, they’ll exhibit behaviours of self-harm, suffer from anxiety and be prone to suicidal tendencies (ASCA, n.d.).
Lastly, overactive amygdale result in an overactive fear response. This combined with a hippocampus which has been damaged or inhibited will also cause an individual to have trouble both storing and retrieving memories, making these adults more likely to develop symptoms related to PTSD and depression (ASCA, n.d.).
Other Responses to Trauma within the Body/Brain
Trauma can be a result of one event or the result of several less severe events spread over a period of time (Richards, n.d.). The entire human system is affected by trauma and if it is left to reside within the body and mind without treatment it can lead to a manifestation of a variety of physical symptoms not limited to the ones described below (ASCA, n.d.).
- The interaction between the brain/nervous system and the hormones produced is called the neuro-endocrine system. Disturbances to the neuro-endocrine system affects primary psychological and physiological functions, such as moods, stress response, immune system, digestion, etc.
- The nervous system is affected by the overflow of fight or flight hormones and becomes highly active in response to a consistent anticipation of further danger as seen in the symptoms of PTSD. An overloaded nervous system means an ever-present fear is maintained even if the environment is ‘safe’.
- Major pathways connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain are interrupted leading to less integration between the hemispheres and leading to irregular shifts in mood or personality.
- The production of thyroid hormones are decreased leading to a less adaptable metabolism which in turn contributes other health issues.
- The effect of stress and trauma has far reaching consequences since without intervention and an attempt to correct the dysfunction within the body and brain, patterns become set throughout life and are thus passed from generation to generation.
How Mindfulness Reverses the Effects of Trauma
So, my question was, “Why, when I was committed to a practice of extended concentration and sustained focus on the breath, did it somehow enable the capacity within me to allow the tiniest flutter of inner balance to creep into my consciousness before my being caught up in an impulsive tirade resulting in my making a fool of myself and regretting it?” Well…
MRI scans of participants involved in mindfulness studies have revealed mindfulness practice builds gray matter (Congleton, 2015) and engages the cortex, while it shrinks the amygdale which is associated most closely with emotional reactivity and fear. This means the standard ‘fight or flight’ response to stress becomes overtaken by our more conscious and thoughtful area of the brain – the cortex (Ireland, 2014).
Perhaps the most significant finding about mindfulness is that it shifts dominance from right to left-brain functioning (Siegel, 2010). This happens when previously unused pathways in the brain laying dormant are ‘ignited’, beginning a process of linking areas of the brain which had remained unintegrated (Graham, 2008). Since the hippocampus can produce new neurons all throughout life (Siegel, 2015) mindfulness can reshape the brain to support new linkages and integration with different areas (de Llosa, 2011). As the brain becomes more supported through integrated neural pathways, formed networks and greater structures the better it functions (Graham, 2008).
All this change means the newer and more evolved cortex – the thinking, reasoning, rational part of the brain – and the regions responsible for learning and memory processes influence the brain’s the ability to regulate emotions, to take on others’ perspectives, to more accurately determine beliefs, experiences and ideas about the self (Davis, 2012; Congleton, 2015).
The mind becomes quieter as the high levels of stress hormones in the brain diminish, clearing the pathway for clearer functioning.
That pretty much answers my question.
Adults Surviving Child Abuse. (n.d.). Impact on the physiology of the brain. Retrieved from http://www.asca.org.au/WHAT-WE-DO/Resources/General-Information/Impact-on-the-physiology-of-the-brain
Baime, M. (2011). This is your brain on mindfulness.
Congleton, C. (2015). Mindfulness can literally change your brain.
Davis, S. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness.
de Llosa, P. (2011). The Neurobiology of “we”.
Gibson, L. (n.d.) Escaping the right brain trap. Retrieved from http://www.tidewaterwomen.com/columns/well-being/escaping-the-right-brain-trap
Graham, L. (2008). The neuroscience of attachment.
Ireland, T. (2014). What does mindfulness meditation do to your brain.
McGill University. (n.d.) The evolutionary layers of the human brain.
Narvaez, D. (2011). Dangers of “crying it out”.
Richards, N. (n.d.). Trauma’s impact on the body.
Siegel, D. (2010). The science of mindfulness.
Siegel, D. (2015). Brain insights and well-being.
Article posted 25 October 2015