It’s not a question I get asked a lot, but I kind of wish it was. Maybe it’s the thought of being answered with a lot of neuroscience jargon that keeps people from asking. Maybe most folks just aren’t as interested in the brain, and all that it does, as I am. Anyway, it’s something I have been curious about, which led me to do a bit of digging for the answer. Hopefully, I can describe what’s going on in plain English to help you understand, and maybe have a new appreciation for mindfulness.
First, it’s helpful to understand that each area in the brain has a specific function. Though each brain is unique, they’re all (mostly) laid out in the same way. We each have areas dedicated to vision, hearing, our sense of touch, our movements, emotion, etc. We even have an area dedicated to only recognizing human faces (and it has a fun name, the fusiform gyrus).
We’ve discovered what these brain areas do through a variety of techniques. Before modern medical imaging, most of what we learned was through people with brain damage. When someone would have a stroke, a brain surgery, or an accident that damaged part of their brain, we’d pay close attention to what changed with them. We came up with some great experiments and figured out what was “missing” from their previous functioning. Also, if someone had some abnormal traits, sometimes we’d explore their brains during an autopsy and see if we could find any differences from what we considered normal. Then came imaging and electronic sensors.
With technologies like fMRI, EEG, and PET scans (don’t worry, there’s no test on these later) we gained the capability to peek inside the mysterious black box of our skulls. In real time we can now “see” brains as they work, kind of. We can sense an increase in activity within areas of our brains, but we can’t say precisely what that activity is down to a molecular level (which would give scientists much more information). It’s like flying a helicopter over a city and looking down. You can see people moving about, but it’s difficult to tell what people on the ground are talking about from several hundred feet up.
Animal experiments have revealed important findings about how brains work, too. Since we share similar structures to other mammals, especially primates, we can sometimes apply what we learn from them to us.
Our brains, like other organs in our bodies, have changing demands, and they are built to adjust to changes in demand. Our muscles are a classic example of a structure in our body changing from demands. Think of a bodybuilder. Their bodies don’t just come out that way on their own, they make tremendous adjustments based on the demands (like lifting more weight with specific muscle groups). When our brains adjust to demands, though, they don’t swell (not appreciably), because swelling inside the head is a very bad thing. Our skulls are hard and our brains are soft. So when they push against each other, the brain gets squished, which is bad. So instead of swelling, our brains adapt in a unique way — they restructure their connections.
The number and strength of the connections between our brain cells determine a helluva lot about how we behave and think. The other part of that equation is the chemicals present in our brains (but we’ll have to get into that some other time). So our connections have a lot to do with what we can do, the things we like and don’t like, and most importantly how we think.
Our brains are populations of cells. And their only role is to communicate messages throughout our body and mind. I separate body and mind here, because most of the communication that occurs in our brains doesn’t make it to our attention, and we mostly take for granted that it happens at all.
Each brain cell (neuron) communicates to the cells it is connected to. And like our social connections, our brain’s connections can change, even in adulthood. We call that ability to change connections “neuroplasticity,” and its discovery is something relatively new in science. Contrary to previous beliefs, our noggin really can learn new tricks.
By practicing or rehearsing something, we strengthen connections in our brains and that function becomes more efficient. It makes sense, right? You train to do something over and over, and it becomes faster and easier to do. Our brain cells are like a groups working together, the more often they work, the better they get at their tasks.
So what does all of this have to do with mindfulness? I’m glad you asked! Mindfulness is a very specific kind of mental exercise for our brains, and it develops certain areas of our brains. Since each little bit has its own unique function, we target specific functional areas and get predictable results from this kind of exercise (meditation and mindfulness).
The areas that are exercised when we practice mindfulness have to do with what we call ”direct experience.” When we’re experiencing something directly, we’re fully enveloped by whatever we’re doing. We are not thinking about the past, the future, or even about ourselves. Of course, direct experiences happen in our lives whether or not we practice mindfulness, and you can probably recall a time when you experienced this feeling of being completely enveloped. But studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness, even irregularly, have direct experiences more often. They also tend to have higher levels of happiness.
In my experiences with mindfulness, and teaching it to my patients, our life circumstances don’t even need to change outwardly to see the improvements in our quality of life. We tend to appreciate, and become more grateful for the way things are. By noticing more of what’s happening right now, we disengage from what happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. Our experiences feel enriched and have more meaning.
It makes sense why mindfulness interventions are being tried and investigated for a variety of conditions, like addictions, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A common symptom in these illnesses is that the person experiencing them has difficulty feeling connected to the current moment. Often, their past or worries of the future consume their thoughts, leading to strong negative emotions that influence their behaviors. With this in mind, the advantage of being connected to the current moment makes sense.
Of course, a mindful practice won’t just benefit people who are struggling with mental or psychological illnesses. The implications for people who are otherwise well are that they too will be more and more connected to the current moment, letting go of what already happened and what is yet to happen.
When I bring up meditation with my patients, they often have the misconceptions that it is about improving their mood, or completely stopping their thoughts. And when they practice and are not feeling an improvement in their moods afterward, or cannot help from noticing distracting thoughts, they assume they are doing it incorrectly, or that it’s not working for them. A mindfulness practice isn’t about being in a blissful mood all the time, it’s about being in touch with reality, and accepting that reality. And accepting isn’t the same as liking. Also, whether you’re a beginner or resurrecting a practice, expect distractions!
As our practices strengthen, we become better at simply noticing our judgements of liking/disliking that can skew our thoughts and actions. Then we are more likely to have patience between our emotions and our reactions. Our behaviors slowly become more rational, beneficial, and compassionate as we understand ourselves and our tendencies. We gain a greater sense of what we can and cannot control, and prevent much of the conflict that comes from confusing these things. As this happens, life flows and things just make sense.
Dr. Michael Stanclift