Creating New Neural Pathways through Mindfulness
Have you ever driven home without remembering how you got there?
Thanks to our incredible brains, we can turn on the auto-pilot and drive to our destination without much conscious effort. However, if a cat were to suddenly jump on the road, you would immediately hit the brakes and take control of the wheels in a more conscious way.
If we practice a skill long enough, we become very good at it. The brain is a very powerful organ that thrives on efficiency and speed. The more we do without conscious effort, the more energy we have for other things. If nothing out of the ordinary happens, we follow the same neural pathways that lead us to make the same automatic decisions. If, however, we are faced with a challenge and we become aware of it, then we start to create new pathways – and even let the old ones go.
How do we create new neural pathways?
People used to believe that we could not change our brains. However, thanks to modern neuroscience, we now know that our brains can change to adapt to new environments. The ability of the brain to adapt to its environment and form new neural pathways is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroscientists have been quite fascinated with the impact mindfulness meditation can have on the brain’s ability to change. For example, the work of Dr. Sara Lazar from Harvard University has been the most prominent in terms of addressing the intersection between mindfulness and neuroplasticity. In their first study, Dr. Lazar and colleagues compared the brains of seasoned meditators with people who have never meditated before. They found that pros had more gray matter than non-meditators in certain areas of the brain. These areas were primarily involved in sensory awareness.
In a follow-up study in 2011, the researchers found that after eight weeks of mindfulness training (MBSR), people had changes in certain brain structures. The brain scans showed hippocampal growth in meditators compared to controls. Hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped brain structure that is part of the limbic system. It is specifically involved in learning and memory processes. In fact, people with post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression tend to have relatively smaller hippocampi.
Dr. Lazar and her team also found changes in temporo-parietal junction in meditators’ brain scans. This brain region is involved in perspective taking, creativity, empathy, and compassion. This result suggested that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation helped people develop more empathy towards others compared to controls. Furthermore, the researchers also found reductions in the size of the amygdala in meditators. People who reported stress reduction also had smaller amygdalas. This brain structure is particularly associated with anger and fear. In essence, these findings suggest that meditation practitioners are less reactive to emotionally triggering stimuli.
Emotion regulation through mindfulness
Mindfulness has been conceptualized both as a trait and state characteristic. Trait mindfulness refers to an individual’s predisposition to be mindful in everyday life whereas state mindfulness refers to the cultivation of mindfulness by practicing mindfulness meditation.
In 2015, Dr. Norman Farb from the University of Toronto and colleagues published a study investigating the effects of state mindfulness on cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is the ability to reframe or re-interpret the meaning of a situation to regulate emotions. For the study, the researchers divided the participants into three groups: 1) mindfulness 2) suppression 3) mind wandering. The study participants practiced different strategies depending on their group for one week. Those in the mindfulness condition reported higher levels of state mindfulness than subjects in the other conditions.
The researchers found that state mindfulness predicted increased cognitive reappraisal over time. Dr. Farb and colleagues even suggest that enhanced cognitive reappraisal can help people regulate their emotions better in the long term.
Taken together, these research findings suggest that mindfulness practices impact the brain in profound ways. The ability of the brain to change and adapt to novel information acquired through new habits transforms our self-narratives. Redefining our narratives and everyday experiences gives us the flexibility to choose how we want to respond to whatever life throws at us.
- 1. March 27, 2018, Sara Lazar at the Celebrating Delightful Moments and the Tech Vectors of Happiness event. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOIwtTmpc-I
- 2. Holzel B.K, et al. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res.191:36–43. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.
- 3. Garland, E. L., Hanley, A., Farb, N. A., & Froeliger, B. (2015). State mindfulness during meditation predicts enhanced cognitive reappraisal. Mindfulness, 6, 234-242. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0250-6