In Awareness Events, Mental Health, Mindfulness, Wellness

Train Your Brain with Mindfulness Meditation

Train Your Brain Day was observed on October 13, 2022. This nationally recognized event is dedicated to raising awareness about the power of the mind and the positive benefits of mental training. Just as we train muscles in the body, the brain also needs to be exercised. An effective brain training exercise is mindfulness meditation. Jon Kabat-Zin’s definition of mindfulness is: “Mindfulness meditation is paying attention, on purpose, in a particular way from moment to moment.” One formal practice of mindfulness is to set aside a particular amount of time to train your brain by choosing an object of attention to focus on and then re-directing your attention back to that object of attention each time you get distracted. Objects of attention can be anything in the present moment, for example, the breath, sensations in the body, and sound.

Neuroscience has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation changes both the structure and function of the brain. In a 2014 study, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies that observed the changes in brain structures related to mindfulness meditation. They found several regions of the brains that were different among meditators vs. non-meditators. These regions include the prefrontal cortex, somatomotor cortex, insula, hippocampus, anterior singulate cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. The brain functions that are benefited due to these structural changes from practice are highlighted below.

Higher thinking iconTrains metacognitive awareness
(i.e., higher order thinking, and the processing of complex, abstract information)

Pain tolerance iconIncreased ability to handle physical pain

Mind and body iconBetter mind-body connection
(increased interoceptive body awareness)

Stress iconBetter ability to handle stress

Focus iconIncreased focus

Clarity iconIncreased clarity of thought

Emotions iconIncreased emotional regulation

Flex iconPsychological flexibility

Reactivity iconReduced reactivity

Worry IconReduced rumination and worry

Thoughts iconBetter awareness of internal experiences
(i.e., thoughts, feelings, and body sensations)

In addition to the above benefits, mindfulness meditation helps to increase the ability to be fully present in the moment. With multiple things vying for our attention (i.e., notifications from computers and phones, co-workers, family members, thoughts, etc.) we are seeing a decrease in attention span. Approximately 45% of our day is spent daydreaming, ruminating about the past, or planning for the future (this is when the default mode network is activated). Mindfulness meditation activates a part of the brain called the task positive network, which is responsible for directing our attention at will. Only one of these neural networks can be activated at one time. The ability to direct our attention at will is a useful skill for being able to pay attention when we need to, and to be present for the people in our lives.

Mindfulness meditation is also an effective way to handle the uncertainty in our lives. With the last few years, there has been an immense amount of uncertainty. Mindfulness helps us to interrupt the habit of worry, overthinking, and fear-based thinking. Neuroscientist Judson Brewer describes uncertainty as FEAR + ANXIETY. From what we know through neuroscience, uncertainty challenges the most basic survival mechanism of the brain, the reward-based learning system. Mindfulness helps to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex, the more evolved part of our brain, and the task-positive network. By training this part of our brain, we are able to bring our attention back to the here and now and interrupt negative patterns of thinking.

While, mindfulness meditation has become more mainstream, there are still myths about the practice. Until these myths are normalized and disputed, these myths prohibit people from practicing.

Myth #1
A person has to be sitting still to practice mindfulness meditation and in a certain location. (i.e., someone sitting on a mountaintop or on a beach)
Meditation can be done anywhere, and in any posture that is comfortable for the person’s body. It’s helpful to encourage people to practice in different postures and choose the one that works best for their body. (i.e., sitting down in a comfortable chair, lying down, or standing up)
Myth #2
The goal of the practice is to shut off your thoughts.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that helps us to become more familiar with the habit patterns of our minds. The formal practice of mindfulness helps us to notice thoughts as they come, and then re-direct attention back to an object of attention (i.e., the breath, physical sensations in the body, sounds). Thoughts are a normal and consistent part of practice. At times a person may not notice thoughts and find it easy to pay attention to their breath, while at other times they may find their mind filled with many thoughts – both of which are normal.
Myth #3
If you don’t feel calm after practicing – you’re doing it wrong
While practicing, if a person is already feeling anxious, then they may become more aware of how they are feeling. Sometimes feeling calm can be a byproduct of practice but isn’t an expected outcome. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of our feeling states. With practice a person becomes more aware of the ever-changing landscape of emotions. They learn to see them, feel them, and watch them pass by – much like clouds passing in the sky.
Myth #4
It takes a lot of time.
Recent research conducted by the military indicates that the minimum time needed to see the benefits of mindfulness (i.e., the dosing effect) is 12 minutes/day, 5 days/week. Just as with physical activity, a person will not see benefits until they dedicate time, attention, and practice.

While mindfulness meditation is not the end all, be all – it is an effective tool to train the mind. It also helps to harness the power of the mind by increasing focus and psychological flexibility.

Additional resources may be found on the CASAT OnDemand Resources & Downloads page.

This article was developed by Heather Haslem, M.S. Feel free to use, link to, or distribute this information. A link to our site and attribution would be much appreciated.

References:

Brewer, J. (2021). Unwinding anxiety. Vermilion.

Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., Sedlmeier, P., & Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews43, 48–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.016

Jha, A. (2022, April 9). Find your focus: Own your attention in 12 minutes a day. Mindful. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://www.mindful.org/find-your-focus-own-your-attention-in-12-minutes-a-day/

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.

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