IN our previous column we wrote about mindfulness and the general benefits to our mental health when we try to live our lives in a more mindful way.
Today we will continue with this theme as well as focussing more specifically on the cognitive benefits (ie the benefits to functions such as attention, memory, concentration, decision-making) and on the brain changes brought about by the practice of this ancient tradition.
Mindfulness practices include the meditations, some of which date back to the origins of mindfulness approximately 2,500 years ago. These meditations anchor our awareness and attention into the present moment. The anchor can be the flame of a candle or the inhale and exhale of our breathing. Or the meditation can be more informal, whereby we endeavour to just give our attention fully to whatever we are doing at the moment. So, if we are brushing our teeth then that is where and what we try to keep our attention focussed on - teeth-brushing meditation.
We view the attitudes of mindfulness as similar to guideposts to help us manage our “tricky minds” that are so distractible and anxiety-prone. These include trying to focus our attention (and our thoughts) in the present. This can be a really helpful reminder, as anxiety often drags our attention off into focussing on “what ifs?”, ie “what if this happens?”, “what if this doesn’t happen?”
Acceptance is another important one, ie trying to accept whatever is happening to us without the psychological struggle. This is different to resignation and giving up; it is more an acceptance that life/health etc has its ups and downs. A spirit of curiosity and non-judgment is important so that we approach situations in our life with an open mind rather than struggling with pre-conceived ideas and opinions. A sense of kindness and self-compassion is important for helping us treat ourselves as respectfully as we would a dear friend. Slowing things down and learning to respond to events, people and situations is usually much more helpful than immediate or impulsive reactions to them.
So how does mindfulness work on the brain? Modern brain scanning techniqes (fMRI) can now confirm what many practised meditators have known for centuries, that is, regular mindfulness practice can produce positive changes and adaptations in the brain. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe this ability of the brain to adapt and change. Meditation increases neural connections in the brain and strengthens the actual structure of the neurons. (Neurons are types of nerve cells that carry electrical impulses or messages, communicating with each other and the body.)
fMRI scanning allows us to see the increased neural activity in areas such of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with skills such as attention, decision-making, planning and judgement. The hippocampus, that part of the brain that plays a significant role in memory and learning, is also strengthened by meditation. Research studies have shown that meditating daily for 10 minutes or more can improve cognitive function in a matter of weeks. Hence, mindfulness practice can contribute to better school, academic and job performance.
Incredibly, research also tells us that the way we think can change the actual structure in our brains. If we get stuck in negative, ruminative thinking cycles, neurons fire in a particular pattern, reflecting activation of certain areas of the brain. Researchers tell us that “neurons that fire together, wire together”.
In other words, these patterns get laid down and strengthened depending on how we think. So if we can learn more helpful ways to think about our lives, stressors and daily challenges, we will activate and strengthen other areas in the brain.
It seems though that if you really want to reap the benefits of mindfulness, it is important to keep in the practice. Like physical fitness, if you want to develop your mental fitness it is better to practise little and often and build on the little. So, better to practise 10 minutes five days per week than one hour every week or so. We would suggest that you pick a time of day that suits you best; early morning works well for some, but any time that your home/office/shed is relatively calm and you are less likely to be disturbed. Try to stick to the same time each day. Find a nice spot in the room, be warm. Sit upright or lie down if you prefer, be comfortable. Set an intention for the meditation, for example, “I want to slow myself down, and just breathe for the next 10 minutes.”
Some days you will find meditating easier than others, in that you are less interrupted by the chattering of the monkey mind than others. However, there is no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” meditation.
Remember, mindfulness is about non-judgement. So unlike a lot of the tasks we perform each day, our meditation practice does not need to be evaluated.
Slow down, see what happens when you choose to direct your attention to a certain thing and you never know you may actually find yourself living in the moment.
Julie O’Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and mindfulness throughout the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland www.psihq.ie (Find A Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.