By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self. . . When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.” – Christina Congleton
The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. For example, the brain area that controls the right index finger has been found to be larger in blind subjects who use braille than in sighted individuals. Similarly, cab drivers in London who navigate the twisting streets of the city, have a larger hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation, than predefined route bus drivers. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.
The seemingly simple behavior of meditation is actually quite complex. Adding to the complexity is that there are a variety of different meditation techniques. To begin to understand exactly how meditation works to produce its benefit, it is important to determine what works best and what doesn’t. So, there is a need to test and compare the effects of a variety of techniques and variations. There has been some work investigating the neuroplastic changes resulting from a number of different types of meditation techniques. But more work is needed.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a practice widely used particularly to treat mental and physical conditions. It is, in fact, an amalgam of three mindfulness practice techniques; meditation, body scan, and yoga. It is not known if this combination of practices has the same effects on the nervous system as simple long-term meditation practice. In today’s Research News article “8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review.” See:
or see summary below. Gotink and colleagues review the published research literature on the effects of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training on the brain and compare it to the effects of long-term meditation. Participants in the studies were adults who were provided an 8-week MBSR program and had their brains scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f-MRI).
They found that the literature reported that 8 weeks of MBSR training produced changed activity and functional connectivity in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, insula, and cingulate cortex. These are all brain structures that are involved in emotion regulation and behavioral response inhibition and control. In addition, the studies report decreased activity and size of the amygdala. This is a structure involved in activation and emotionality. These are very similar to the neural changes that have been reported for long-term meditators. So, it would appear that and 8-week MBSR training is sufficient to produce major changes in the nervous system reflecting changes in the psychological and emotional aspects of the individual. The practitioner’s brain is changed in such a way as to make them better in charge of their emotions and behavior.
So, change your brain for the better with mindfulness based stress reduction.
“Noticing the differences between sense and story, between primary experience-dependent ‘bottom-up’ input and the secondary ‘top-down’ chatter of prior learning becomes a fundamental tool of the mindfulness approach. Once this distinction, this noticing of the contents of the mind, is readily accessible through intentional practice, the capacity to alter habitual patterns is created and the possibility becomes available for relief from self-preoccupied rumination, self-defeating thought-patterns, negative autobiographical narratives and maladaptive patterns of emotional reactivity.” – Daniel J. Siegel
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Gotink RA, Meijboom R, Vernooij MW, Smits M, Hunink MG. 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review. Brain Cogn. 2016 Jul 15;108:32-41. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2016.07.001. [Epub ahead of print]
- Literature reports that long-term meditators show altered brain activations and structure.
- Post-MBSR, prefrontal cortex, insula, cingulate cortex and hippocampus show similar results to traditional meditation.
- In addition, the amygdala shows earlier deactivation, less gray matter and better connectivity.
- These changes indicate a neuronal working mechanism of MBSR.
Abstract: The objective of the current study was to systematically review the evidence of the effect of secular mindfulness techniques on function and structure of the brain. Based on areas known from traditional meditation neuroimaging results, we aimed to explore a neuronal explanation of the stress-reducing effects of the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program.
Methods: We assessed the effect of MBSR and MBCT (N = 11, all MBSR), components of the programs (N = 15), and dispositional mindfulness (N = 4) on brain function and/or structure as assessed by (functional) magnetic resonance imaging. 21 fMRI studies and seven MRI studies were included (two studies performed both).
Results: The prefrontal cortex, the cingulate cortex, the insula and the hippocampus showed increased activity, connectivity and volume in stressed, anxious and healthy participants. Additionally, the amygdala showed decreased functional activity, improved functional connectivity with the prefrontal cortex, and earlier deactivation after exposure to emotional stimuli.
Conclusion: Demonstrable functional and structural changes in the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, insula and hippocampus are similar to changes described in studies on traditional meditation practice. In addition, MBSR led to changes in the amygdala consistent with improved emotion regulation. These findings indicate that MBSR-induced emotional and behavioral changes are related to functional and structural changes in the brain.