The science behind mindfulness

Mindfulness mediation has been around for thousands of years but only recently research has discovered that the brain has the ability to change its structure and function—strengthening and expanding circuits that are frequently used and weakening and shrinking those that are rarely engaged. This flexibility in the brain is what is called ‘neuroplasticity’.

Mediation and Mindfulness for too long have not been accepted by the medical profession due to lack of evidence but with recent research coming out more and more medical professionals are accepting it’s use as a treatment for a wide variety of conditions, such as chronic pain, addiction, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer and HIV, to name a few.

Throughout the past decade, numerous neuroimaging studies have investigated changes in brain morphology related to mindfulness meditation. One study pooled data from 21 neuroimaging studies examining the brains of about 300 experienced meditation practitioners. The study identified that eight regions were consistently altered in the experienced mediators.

The eight brain regions included the following:

· Rostrolateral prefrontal cortex: A region associated with meta-awareness (awareness of how you think), introspection, and processing of complex, abstract information.

· Sensory cortices and insular cortex: The main cortical hubs for processing of tactile information such touch, pain, conscious proprioception, and body awareness.

· Hippocampus: A pair of subcortical structures involved in memory formation and facilitating emotional responses.

· Anterior cingulate cortex and mid-cingulate cortex: Cortical regions involved in self-regulation, emotional regulation, attention, and self-control.

· Superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum: Subcortical white matter tracts that communicate within and between brain hemispheres.

Other studies have analysed MRI scans and have now uncovered that as little as an eight-week course of mindfulness practice impacts the brains “fight or flight” center, the amygdala. This region is responsible for fear and emotion; it is involved in the ignition of the bodies response to stress. The amygdala has been shown to shrink, this is highly beneficial as it minimises the stress response. While the amygdala shrinks the pre-frontal cortex (function: associated with awareness, concentration and decision making) becomes thicker, offering a stronger awareness. Further, the connection between regions becomes altered with the amygdala getting weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration grow stronger.

Simply put, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.

– Luke Taylor, Taylored Fitness