Neuroscience has found that mindfulness literally changes the structure of your brain.
But while it’s been found that meditation causes changes in the frontal cortex, the left hippocampus and the temporoparietal junction, there is one particular finding that stands above the rest.
Neuroscience has also found that we have two networks in the brain and that mindfulness enables these two networks to become more balanced (unbalance usually results in depression or anxiety disorders).
But before we get into the neuroscience of how that works, let’s discuss what mindfulness actually is.
What is mindfulness?
When we think of mindfulness, we tend to think of an idea that has been around for thousands of years thanks to Buddhism and eastern philosophy. Many Buddhist researchers are doing great things showing how mindfulness can impact the human experience.
However, I have a problem with linking mindfulness to any religion. Not because I am against Buddhism or any religion, it’s just that it’s harder getting across the benefits of mindfulness when it’s attached to a religion.
Being mindful is simply a different state of mind. It’s more a psychological approach than having anything to do with religion. Mindfulness can simply be thought as the opposite of mindlessness – a state of mind that can cause a tremendous amount of suffering.
Here is the definition of mindfulness, according to Greater Good:
“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
When we speak about mindfulness, people might be more receptive to the idea if we mention the neuroscience of how mindfulness actually affects the brain. This way, many skeptics will be able to do explore the idea to see how it actually benefits their life.
So here it is:
The neuroscience of mindfulness
A 2007 study called “Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference” by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.
They found that people have two different sets of networks in their brain for dealing with the world. One network for experiencing your experience is what’s called “the default network”. This network is activated when not much is happening and you begin thinking about yourself.
The default network
It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating. It tends to hold together some sort of narrative.
When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, and how this giant web of information weaves together.
The default network is active for many of your waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. There’s nothing wrong with this network, the point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.
Direct experience network
When the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience. When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.
For example, if you are in the shower, this network is activated when you notice the warmth of the water hitting your body.
The interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated. If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand, because the network involved in direct experience is less active. You don’t feel your senses as much.
Fortunately, this works both ways. When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.
This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re stressed, because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe. Your senses become more alive at that moment.
Why mindfulness is important
The researcher in this study sums it up best:”Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.”
I love this last statement. Mindfulness isn’t difficult: the hard part is remembering to do it.
You don’t need to meditate to do it. The ultimate key to mindfulness is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct sense, and to do it often. You can practice mindfulness while you’re eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything. It doesn’t mean you have to sit still for 15 minutes a day and focus on your breathe. Instead, every now and then, even for 10 seconds, just focus on a sensory experience and you will activate your direct experience network.