Learning Lab

Bearing Yourself in Mind

By Amy Brann

What are you doing right now? You’re probably thinking, “What a silly question, I’m reading this blog.” But what else are you doing? Are you at work, at home, on a train somewhere? How are you feeling? Happy, sad, bored?

Usually we aren’t consciously aware of all our thoughts and feelings with each passing moment but this is exactly the goal that Mindfulness sets for us. And it claims to be able to help make us wiser, healthier people. Now, neuroscience is starting to explain why Mindfulness might be such a useful tool.

Mindfulness today is defined as: “paying attention on purpose moment by moment without judging”1. The concept of mindfulness is an ancient one, finding its routes in the practices of Buddhism. Over the last few years though, cutting edge research by psychologists and neuroscientists has modernised our understanding of Mindfulness. In a similar way to the refining of ancient herbal remedies to produce targeted drugs, researches have attempted to produce secular, scientifically investigated Mindfulness tools.

So far, Mindfulness seems to have been used successfully for many purposes in psychiatric therapy and in everyday life. It may have broad uses in health, education and business. But does it really work? And if it does, what is going on in our brain when we use Mindfulness?

Neuroscience research has defined specific regions of the brain that seem to be responsible for introspective monitoring. It’s perhaps easiest to think of this as the bits of the brain that keep an eye on itself. While most of the brain is busy processing and responding to stimuli from your senses that relate to the outside world, these regions of your brain are following what your brain itself is actually doing and trying to turn all of this information into a coherent narrative. These self-monitoring region of the brain are mostly located within the front part of the brain, which is associated with “higher” brain functions.

If Mindfulness taps into these self-monitoring brain regions and changes the way in which our brain monitors itself, that might offer an explanation as to how it can influence our emotional state and our decision-making processes.

A 2012 study used functional imaging to compare brain activity patterns during a mindfulness task of people experienced in meditation (which uses similar techniques to mindfulness) with a group of ordinary people2. The research did indeed show that connections in the brain were different, most notably in the experienced meditators. One region in particular, the dorso-medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) showed weaker connections to emotional processing regions and stronger connections to the other regions of the brain that monitor its own activity. In other words, the brain was less concerned with an emotionally-charged narrative and more concerned about paying attention to the details of what was actually going on!

So far then, mindfulness seems to have a plausible basis in neuroscience to back up the experimental evidence of its effectiveness in improving productivity, leadership and decision-making skills.

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