The shortest explanation of the neuroscience of mindfulness ever!
We westerners need the stamp of science if we’re going to try anything new and I think it’s useful to know what doing meditation every day actually does to our brain.
There are plenty of website articles, videos and research findings about the neuroscience of meditation but they can be very long and overwhelming at times, especially to the non-scientist. My intention for this page is to give you a very basic summary of the neuroscience behind mindfulness so you don’t have to spend hours reading and scratching your head. New research is coming out all of the time so this page will probably be added to.
It turns out that our brain is a river and not a rock. Research has shown that 70% of the synaptic connections in our brain change each day. What we think and do influences this change. This means that we can potentially expand our range of cognitive and emotional capabilities through training. Neuroscientists call this brain malleability neuroplasticity.
I have chosen Richard Davidson, who directs the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, for this summary as he really is the pioneer for research in this field. Davidson’s studies have shown that people with more left-sided activation tend to be more emotionally positive and people with more right-sided activation have more negative emotions.
Davidson's key research involved wiring up the heads of hundreds of Buddhist monks with 256 sensors, assessed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). The participant’s brain waves were monitored for activity between neutral and meditation states. Non meditating volunteers were also used as a control.
From this study Davidson discovered that the meditation practice increased left-sided prefrontal activation linked with happiness and positive emotions. He also observed that this shift towards increased left-sided activation was associated with significant reductions in anxiety, further cementing the link between mind and body connection.
Davidson concluded from the research that meditation not only changes the workings of the brain in the short term, but also possibly produces permanent changes. Other studies have shown significant changes in the brains of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course participants after just eight weeks.
Meditation practice dates back over 5000 years and only now are we really starting to understand how it affects our brain. However, as interesting and exciting as the new findings are they don’t compare to actually practicing meditation and experiencing it all for yourself……so get meditating! Otherwise it’s like you're reading a menu in a restaurant but never tasting the food.