The Science Behind Mindfulness
The brain is fascinating and beautiful. It provides us with a lifelong ability to change and grow. Neuroplasticity is a word that has gained traction in the last 5-10 years as it relates to the practice of mindfulness.
As noted by Dr. Celeste Campbell, PsyD., “It refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences."
We can rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances —think of it as software updates! This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.
Neuroplasticity is more pronounced and stronger in children and is not absent in adults, but it is generally observed less and at lower strengths; however, the adult brain is still capable of incredible change.
It can restore old, lost connections and functions that have not been used in some time, enhance memory, and even enhance overall cognitive skills.
Research by Professor Sara Lazar and colleagues at Harvard used fMRI (a regular MRI that includes brain activity) imaging to look at the brains of people who practice mindfulness. They found that the areas of the brain related to attention, learning, and emotional processing were bigger and stronger. Multiple studies also show an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps you to be more resilient and adapt to new experiences. In fact, a smaller hippocampus is seen in those with PTSD and severe depression.
As we practice something, be it a physical activity or a thought pattern, the neurons associated with that activity become more connected, resulting in a stronger brain that actually changes, grows, and adapts! Using mindfulness as a tool for the brain, we can grow new neural connections, strengthen existing ones, and eliminate connections to habits and behavioral patterns that no longer serve us.