September 2, 2013

Your Brain on Meditation. ~ Jenni Kay Long, LSW

“To meditate means to be invited on a journey of looking deeply in order to touch our true nature.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

How do we dive deep into our nature when our minds are bursting with thoughts and our beings are swollen with unsettling emotions?

The journey begins with a conscious slowing down and paying attention, which is often referred to as “mindfulness.” Jon Kabat-Zin, mindfulness guru and clinician, explains that mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

And, why exactly would we embark on such a journey—a journey of paying attention, looking deeply, touching our true nature? Why follow the growing crowd down the path of mindfulness and meditation?

While the spiritual benefits have been largely reported by the multitudes of ancient and contemporary meditators, the practical neurophysiological benefits are less well known and acknowledged.

Let’s begin by exploring the workings of the nervous system and the brain, and then consider the ways in which mindfulness and meditation positively impact neurological functioning. We will conclude with practical tips for incorporating mindfulness and meditation into everyday life.

Neurophysiology is the study of the nervous system, the structure that coordinates the interactions between the brain and the rest of the body. These interactions are constantly occurring and have a significant impact on the way we think, feel, and behave. Fortunately, we have the ability to influence the way our brains function and we can positively enhance the internal workings of our nervous systems—we are not merely at the mercy of our childhood development or our traumas.

This ability to “change our brains” is frequently referred to as “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Rick Hanson, Ph.D., sums up this concept writing,

We know that we can change our brains by using our minds

We know that we can change our minds by using our brain

We know that we can use our minds to change our brains

to change our minds for the better.

And we now know that meditation and mindfulness are two of the most effective tools for changing brains and minds for the better. We’ll get into the science of it in a moment, but first let’s consider the basic functions of the brain.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will consider three parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, and the reptilian brain.

The prefrontal cortex is where the analytical action happens in the brain. This area is stimulated and utilized when we problem solve, make decisions, and thinking critically. The prefrontal cortex also plays the role of “filter” allowing us to moderate our behavior in social situations and consider various options when deciding what to say or do.

The limbic system, located in the middle of the brain, serves as the site for emotional action, stores our memories, and allows us to become emotionally attached to one another (Siegel, 2010, 17-19). This mid-brain region is also responsible for endocrine functioning, and responds to the chemical needs of the “reptilian brain” which is in charge of basic survival.

Along with ensuring that we eat and reproduce, the reptilian brain keeps us safe by activating the body’s fight, flight, or freeze responses when there is danger; tapping into the limbic system’s hormone reserves when necessary. For example, when we are in danger or become acutely stressed, “we secrete a hormone that stimulates the adrenals to release cortisol, which mobilizes energy by putting our entire metabolism on high alert to meet the challenge” (Siegel, 2010, 18). In this way, the limbic system and reptilian brain work together to keep us safe.

When we accumulate stress though, our nervous systems become overwhelmed and we often get stuck in the limbic and reptilian systems without even realizing what’s happening. This causes our executive functioning to shut down, wherein logical thoughts become hazy and we make decisions based on fight-flight-freeze instincts rather than a critical assessment of our situation. When we spend too much time in fight-flight-freeze mode, our heart rates and blood pressures plateau at a dangerously high level and our bodies become exhausted from the perpetual tension.

Simply put, we aren’t able to function at our best and we feel our suffering.

One major goal of mindfulness and meditation practice is to help these three parts of the brain work together smoothly so we that we can both feel and think clearly at the same time. In their clinical research on incorporating meditation into trauma treatment, Lee and colleagues (2011) found that meditation activates frontal and prefrontal regions of the brain, and “reduces stress by inducing favorable brainwaves and lowering the physiological and biochemical by-products of stress, such as lowered respiration rate, decreased heart rate, and lowered blood pressure” (p. 41-49).

In other words, meditation helps heal the nervous system which allows our brains to fully function and our bodies to find respite from the painful effects of stress.

Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, adds to the discussion, “One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself” (Siegel, 2011, p. 39).

Not only does mindfulness and meditation help us heal from past stress, an everyday practice of slowing down and mindfully directing our attention has the power to forever change our minds and brains for the better so that our prefrontal cortex and limbic system continue working well together into the future.

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, meditation guides us back to our true nature, the part of our selves that is deeper and truer than our stress and traumas.

The journey first requires a slowing down and paying attention. Let’s practice, shall we?

Notice where you are. Become aware of your body: How does it feel?

Notice your breath. Is it quick and shallow?

If so, allow the breath to sink into the lowest parts of the lungs.

Breathing deeply, allow the belly to expand and fill with air.

Exhaling, allow the belly to contract back towards the spine, releasing any old air and unnecessary toxins.

Feel free to step away from the screen, and continue breathing for many moments.

Breathing deeply and paying attention, you are well on your way to restoring your nervous system, and finding your true self in the midst of a busy life.

Breathe. Pay attention. And be well.

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Assistant Ed: Tawny Sanabria/Ed: Sara Crolick

{photo: via Andre Woodard}


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Jenni Kay Long, LSW