NeuroScience & the Brains of Trained Meditators & Mindfulness Practitioners:
A plethora of neuroscience research demonstrates significant and consistent positive changes in the brains of individuals practicing meditation styles from Buddhist meditation to more secular mindfulness based stress reduction techniques.
Science demonstrates 1) you can train your brain to improve 2) the change in the brain is measurable and 3) new ways of thinking can change the brain for the better.
Definitions of Brain Grey Matter and Brain White Matter
The brain has 2 kinds of tissue: a) Grey matter and b) White matter
Brain Grey matter consists of brain cells also known as neurons. The grey matter is the power of the brain. It is involved in brain-behavior functions that include: attention/concentration, emotions, learning, memory, language, intelligence, decision making, problems solving, and sensory-motor perception. The grey matter is like muscle of the brain. When it is trained properly it can increase in density.
*White matter is communication tracks between the grey matter of neurons and communication tracts between different grey matter brain regions. The white matter is the speed and efficiency of processing the brain-behavior functions of the grey matter.
Highlights of NeuroScience Empirical Research on Mindfulness & interventions & Meditation:
The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is part of the limbic system and temporal lobes. The hippocampus is involved in memory and is particularly susceptible to stress and stress relate disorders like depression, various forms of traumas, including PTSD. Individuals who are properly trained in meditation techniques and mindfulness stress reduction techniques have hippocampus that increases in density and also increases its connections to other brain regions. These findings are significantly important for helping the brain and body learn from stressful experiences and shut down the stress response after trauma, or during depression, anxiety or fear.
The brain stem is an area of the brain that regulates the autonomic nervous system. The brain stem also demonstrates changes in individuals who are trained in proper meditation and mindfulness stress reduction techniques. The brain stem changes demonstrate stress resilience and stress recovery by calming the body.
The prefrontal cortex (right behind your forehead) is the part of the brain involved in executive functions that include, will power, self-regulation, decision making, self-awareness, regulating emotional behavioral response, impulse inhibition, rational decision making, regulating distractions, higher order attention/concentration and focus. Individuals who are trained in proper meditation and mindfulness techniques have prefrontal cortices that increase in gray matter density and white matter efficiency. The grey matter density allows the brain to do things more easily—even very difficult things. The white matter increases speed of processing incoming information by allowing the brain cells to communicate with each other faster, more efficiently, and productively.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is an area behind the frontal lobes. It is an area of the brain associated with self-regulation that includes higher order attention and cognitive flexibility. Individuals who are properly trained in meditation techniques and mindfulness stress reduction techniques have ACC grey matter that increases in density.
The Corpus Callosum (CC) is white matter connecting the left and right frontal hemispheres. The corpus callosum is one of the main communication channels between the 2 hemispheres. The corpus callosum increases in density and connectivity with trained meditators. Thereby increasing the communication between the left and right frontal cortex. Speed of processing of information is enhanced and the brain functions more efficiently and the mind more productively.
The Amygdala is part of the limbic system. It is involved in processing emotional responses, emotional memory, and emotional reactions. It is highly susceptible and reactive to various forms of trauma, such as emotional, psychological, and physical. It has heightened reactivity and overactivity to threat (real or imagined) when an individual has experienced trauma or is in a state of post traumatic stress response. The good news is that with proper meditation and mindfulness based stress reduction techniques the amygdala decreases in density and becomes less reactive.
The Insula is involved in social connection, compassion, and also interprets physical information that you receive from emotions. The Insula increases in density and with more connectivity to other brain regions in trained meditators. These finding are important for the recovery of physical pain, depression, anxiety, and trauma.
The brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) also know to lay person as the “Monkey-Mind”. The DMN demonstrates decreased activation in brain cell firing in individuals practicing mindfulness stress reduction techniques and meditation. The DMN is overactive when our minds are wandering and not focused. An active DMN is counterproductive for all aspects of brain-behavior efficiency, productivity, and emotional regulation. The less active the DMN then the better emotional equanimity and the more productive in life you become.
Consistent positive changes in the brain are associated with proper training in meditation and mindfulness stress reduction techniques. Consistent and greater changes are associated with the amount of time time one meditates, the frequency or how regularly one meditates, as well as how many years.
Super Great Scientific Empirical Evidence: The neuroscience studies demonstrate statistically and clinically significant improvements in as little 8 weeks of regular daily practice.
***If you are interested in learning how to properly practice meditation, mindfulness based interventions, mindfulness stress reduction techniques, or if you just are fascinated by the brain and mind like I am.
I’m kinda a brain-mind nerd, then reach out. I would love to hear from you.
Shawna M. Freshwater, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, NeuroPsychologist & Holistic Healer
for more information on the areas of the brain regions referenced