Change the Brain with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity. In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.” – Tom Ireland
There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that meditation has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how meditation could do this. One possibility is that mindfulness practice results in beneficial changes in the nervous system.
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. 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, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.
The results of the research concerning the changes in the brain that occur with mindfulness practice have not presented a consistent picture. One issue may be the way that mindfulness is measured. This issue was explored in today’s Research News article “A distinction between two instruments measuring dispositional mindfulness and the correlations between those measurements and the neuroanatomical structure.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5524689/, Zhuang and colleagues compared Magnetic Resonance Images (MRIs), depression, and emotion regulation, between college students who had been measured for mindfulness with Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) to those measured with the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ).
They found that higher MAAS scores and FFMQ Describing, Acting with Awareness, and Non-judging scores the lower levels of depression. In addition, higher FFMQ Describing scores were significantly associated with higher emotion regulation. In regard to the brain scans they found that the higher the MAAS score the greater the size of the Precuneus area of the cortex. Mediation analysis demonstrated that the higher the volume of the precuneus cortical region the higher the MAAS score which in turn was associated with lower depression. So, mindfulness as measured by the MAAS was associated greater volume of the precuneus and was responsible for the relationship of the Precuneus volume with depression.
In regard to mindfulness measured with the FFMQ and the brain scans they found that the larger the size of the Superior Prefrontal Cortex, the higher the Describing and Non-judging facets and the lower the Non-reacting facet. In addition, the larger the size of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal cortex the higher the Describing FFMQ facet. Mediation analysis demonstrated that the higher the volume of the Superior Prefrontal Cortex the higher the Describing FFMQ facet which in turn predicted higher emotion regulation. So, mindfulness as measured with the Describing FFMQ facet was associated greater size of the Superior Prefrontal Cortex and was responsible for the relationship of the Superior Prefrontal Cortex size with emotion regulation.
These results are interesting and suggest that the kind of relationship observed between changes in the brain and mindfulness is affected by the way mindfulness is measured. This could account for some of the conflicting findings in the published research. Also, since the Precuneus is associated with awareness of self, the results suggest that mindfulness as measured by the MAAS mainly measures self-awareness while since the inferior parietal cortex is also associated with awareness of self, the results suggest that mindfulness as measured by the Describing FFMQ facet also measures self-awareness. But the FFMQ mindfulness measure goes further and also documents other abilities. Since, the Prefrontal cortex is associated with attention control and emotion regulation, the results suggest that mindfulness as measured by the Describing and Non-reacting FFMQ facets also measure attention control and emotion regulation.
Clearly, mindfulness is associated with different sizes of areas in the brain’s cortical regions. But, even though the brain is different with mindfulness, the types of differences observed depends upon how mindfulness is measured. The Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) measure appears to be superior to the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) as it breaks mindfulness down into component parts providing greater refinement in observed brain changes. These results will be helpful in future research unravelling the relationship of mindfulness to the characteristics of the nervous system.
“The practice of mindfulness can train our brains to have a new default. Instead of automatically falling into the stream of past or future rumination that ignites the depression loop, mindfulness draws our attention to the present moment. As we practice mindfulness, we actually start wiring neurons that balance the brain in a way that is naturally an antidepressant. “ – Debbie Hampton
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Zhuang, K., Bi, M., Li, Y., Xia, Y., Guo, X., Chen, Q., … Qiu, J. (2017). A distinction between two instruments measuring dispositional mindfulness and the correlations between those measurements and the neuroanatomical structure. Scientific Reports, 7, 6252. http://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-06599-w
The most widely used measurements of mindfulness are the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ). However, controversies exist regarding the application of these scales. Additionally, the neural mechanisms of dispositional mindfulness have become a topic of interest. In the current study, we used surface-based methodology to identify the brain regions underlying individual differences in dispositional mindfulness in a large non-clinical sample and compared the two instruments for measuring the dispositional mindfulness. The results indicated that the MAAS scores were significantly associated with increased grey matter volumes in the right precuneus and the significant association between the precuneus and depression symptomatology was mediated by MAAS scores. Regarding the FFMQ, the Describing, Nonjudging, and Nonreactivity facets were selectively associated with the cortical volume, thickness and surface area of multiple prefrontal regions as well as the inferior parietal lobule. Importantly, Describing mediated the association between the dorsolateral PFC volume and the cognitive reappraisal strategies of emotion regulation. These results suggested that the MAAS were mainly associated with self-awareness, while the FFMQ facets were selectively involved in emotion regulation, attention control and self-awareness. Therefore, this study characterized the differences in inter-individual variability between the two typical measurements of dispositional mindfulness and the correlations between those measurements and imaging analyses.