How Mindfulness Changes the Brain

Anyone working in a fast-paced, complex, challenging environment – especially those in positions of leadership -  should know that incorporating just a few moments of mindfulness into your daily routine will improve self-regulation, mental flexibility, memory, and strategic decision-making.

Mindfulness is a pretty big buzz word these days. And before you dismiss it as new-age hype, there is scientific research and neural imaging studies to back it up.  Mindfulness doesn’t just change your mindset; it literally alters your brain. 

The official definition of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

In simplest terms, mindfulness just means being present without judgment.  It doesn’t mean being passive and watching the world move past you, rather it’s being tuned in to your current experience.  Here. This. Now.  Being completely present in this moment without thinking about the past or the future.  you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Mindfulness is just one form of meditation.

To identify exactly which brain regions are impacted by mindfulness, a team of scientists conducted a meta-analysis of over 20 neural imaging research studies. They found that at least 8 different regions of the brain are affected.  One area of significance is the anterior cingulate cortex. The ACC is connected to the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for executive function and higher-order thinking skills).  The ACC plays a role in some autonomic functions such as blood pressure and heart rate, but it is also where our mental flexibility and impulse control are managed.  It also enables us to apply past experiences quickly when making decisions in fast-changing conditions.  Neural imaging shows greater activity in the ACC of meditators than non-meditators.  Subjects who regularly practiced mindfulness techniques also scored significantly higher on self-regulation tests and stay focused on the task at hand.

Another important brain region that is altered by mindfulness is the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is part of the limbic system and is primarily responsible for memory and emotional control.  People who suffer from depression, PTSD, or chronic stress typically have a smaller hippocampus.  Conversely, those who regularly practice mindfulness and other forms of meditation have more gray matter in the hippocampus enabling them to manage stress and information recall better than their counterparts. 

Neuroscience also indicates that mindfulness affects regions of the brain that manage pain, introspection, complex thinking and self-awareness. Despite the wealth of existing research about mindfulness, we are still in the infancy of understanding the extent of benefits associated with mindfulness.  However, there is no question that in order to support healthy, essential brain function such as self-regulation, strategic decision-making, mental flexibility, and stress management, mindfulness should be a regular and intentional part of your daily routine. 



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