Scientific Studies Show How Practising Mindfulness Alters The Brain
Many studies have been conducted on participants before and after completion of the 8 week MBSR course and they have found that it alters our brains in many ways.
Studies show that after the 8 week MBSR course there was:-
. Increased size of the grey-matter in the hippocampus resulting in improved learning, memory, focus, positivity, self awareness and compassion as well as the way we process information.
. Increased size of the grey matter on the left side of the hippocampus (which is often very small in those who suffer from depression).
. Increased activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex which are associated with decision making, planning and judgement.
. Increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex resulting in people being happier, more alert, enthusiastic, joyful, being less stressed and having more energy. (People who have more activity in the right pre frontal cortex report anxiety, worry and sadness).
Short periods of mindfulness have been seen to lower anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue.
By practising mindfulness, the resulting changes in our brain means for one thing we are less stressed and therefore there is a reduced likelihood of getting diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression and fatigue.
When we experience a stressful situation two main regions are activated:- the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus receives the information taken in from our senses and if it determines the situation is threatening, it activates the amygdala and when this is active it triggers our fight or flight response – pumping cortisol and other hormones through our system – raising our blood pressure, clouding our judgement. We get angry and may react aggressively. Neuroscientists call this an amygdala hijack – it is perfect for running away from a lion but it is not designed to be constantly ramped up. When it is, it becomes even more sensitive which leads to agitation.
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that an 8 week MBSR course reduced the size of the amygdala and made people less flighty and they didn’t overreact. The decreased grey matter in the amygdala is shown to play an important role in reducing anxiety and stress.
When cortisol is high for prolonged periods the right brain becomes more active than the left. With an under-active left brain it is difficult to be cheerful, positive or socially outgoing and one can be pulled into a negative spiral and helplessness.
Excessive worry releases cortisol which attacks the neurons in the hippocampus which reduces the size of the hippocampus resulting in loss of short-term memory function, reduced immune function and restricted ability to take in new information.
It was also seen that the calmer reactions and control over our emotions endured beyond the time spent in the sitting practice. Therefore, mindfulness doesn’t just help us whilst we are actively practising it but afterwards as well.