Over recent decades, mindfulness has gone from being an “out there” fringe topic to becoming a mainstream scientifically-validated concept. It’s now being utilized as a method of therapy, a tool to increase corporate well-being, and a way to improve everything from educational practices to weight loss to athletic performance. During this time, mindfulness has intersected with cutting-edge neuroscience. Looking at the ancient practice through a scientific lens is turning out some extraordinarily robust data showing that the practice to be a powerful mental health tool.
Studies have shown mindfulness to significantly improve a variety of conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mindfulness has also proven successful in preventing relapse of chronic depression and substance abuse. (For a full explanation of the meaning of mindfulness, read here.)
But what exactly is happening in your brain when you’re mindful?
Mindfulness Is Shifting the Location of Control in Your Brain
In terms of using your physical brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system — the ancient, instinctual “reptilian” brain — to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of your brain is essentially your “humanness.” It is why we humans have the big foreheads that protrude out and our primate cousins don’t.
The very front part of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), has evolved to function beyond the basic bodily and survival concerns of the brainstem and beyond the emotional concerns of the limbic system. Your higher mental processes take place in the PFC. In this prefrontal realm, your brain creates complex concepts, such as time, your sense of self, and moral judgments. This is also where mindfulness happens in your brain.
This brain region is highly integrated. By that, I mean that the PFC is literally one synapse away from your cortex, limbic area, and brain stem. The middle PFC (specifically including the anterior cingulate, orbitofrontal, the medial and ventrolateral prefrontal zones) fibers link the whole cortex, limbic area, brain stem, body proper, and even social systems to one another. That’s important because it allows the PFC to “talk to” and influence these other areas.
In other words, it can insert rational thinking and calm them down.
Here’s why that’s important:
- The cerebral cortex is the largest region of the cerebrum in the mammalian brain and plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, cognition, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness.
- The primary structures in the limbic system include the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus. The amygdala is the emotional center of your brain. It controls your body’s fight-or-flight response. The hippocampus plays an essential role in the formation of new memories and seems to be involved in some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and depression.
- The brain stem is at the bottom posterior part of the brain joining to your spinal cord. The nerve connections of the motor and sensory systems from the main part of the brain to the rest of your body pass through the brainstem. Therefore, it’s one of the most vital regions for your body’s survival. It regulates control of the heart and lungs and coordinates many other important bodily reflexes.
The PFC Is Captain of Your Ship
You can think of the PFC as the captain of a ship –- your ship, your body, your life. It has the ability to steer the ship at all times. However, if the captain is napping below deck, he can’t guide your ship in the best direction to avoid rough seas and bad weather. At these times, your vessel can easily get pounded by the waves, tossed around by the wind and current, and go off course. When the captain is on deck, engaged, and alert at the helm, he can steer the ship to calmer waters, avoiding rough seas and maintaining balance and direction.
It’s the same with your brain and life. If you let your amygdala and limbic system run your life, you’re in for some rough seas and who knows where you’ll end up. If you learn to insert frontal lobe thinking and control into your daily life, through mindfulness, it will be much easier to stay afloat and on course when stormy weather hits.
Mindfulness repeatedly activates the PFC, which develops better PFC to limbic system control mechanisms. Because of neuroplasticity, the two regions become more connected and pathways better established in your brain. With a regular mindfulness practice, PFC activation becomes an easier go-to default for your emotional responses.
Other Things to Note About the PFC:
- Reduced volume and interconnections of the frontal lobes with other brain regions have been observed in people incarcerated, diagnosed with mental disorders, affected by lead poisoning, and subjected to repeated stressors; suicides; criminals; sociopaths; and daily cannabis users.
- Being able to feel guilt or remorse and to interpret reality, may be dependent on a well-functioning prefrontal cortex.
- The size and number of connections in the prefrontal cortex could relate directly to sentience. The prefrontal cortex in humans occupies a far larger percentage of the brain than any other animal.
- The left and right halves of the prefrontal cortex appear to become more interconnected in response to consistent aerobic exercise.
- Practicing mindfulness can enhance prefrontal activation, which is correlated with increased well-being and reduced anxiety.
Mindful Functions of Your Prefrontal Cortex
Nine functions emerge from the high neural integration of the middle PFC. These basic functions comprise the foundation for well-being and emotional intelligence — components of mindfulness. According to Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, in his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, these nine functions are:
The middle PFC coordinates the activity of your autonomic nervous system that controls basic bodily functions, like heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
In attuned communication, you let your internal emotional state shift to resonate with another’s inner world. The quality of “feeling felt” could describe attunement. Children need attunement to develop secure attachments, and we need it all throughout our lives to feel connected.
When you’re in emotional balance, you’re aroused enough for life to have meaning and passion, but not so aroused that you feel out of control or overwhelmed. On the other extreme of lacking balance, life could feel flat, rigid, and depressed. To dip in either direction with the ups and downs of life is normal. It is the PFC’s job to reestablish equilibrium after an initial event that throws you off center.
Response flexibility is the power of your middle prefrontal region to put space in between stimulus and reaction. It’s the ability to pause and consider various options and the possible consequences of each. This allows you to consciously respond to life’s happenings rather than knee-jerk reacting. Response-flexibility is an important part of social and emotional intelligence.
The prefrontal region of your brain has direct connections with the limbic areas which means it can inhibit and modulate the activity of your fear/anxiety/panic-inducing amygdala. Studies show that you can consciously harness this connection to override and calm your limbic system.
Empathy is the capacity to understand and create images in your mind of what might be going on in the mind of another person. This is the ability to attune to the other person’s state of mind emotionally and not just intellectually know of it. The middle prefrontal cortex allows this complex capability of “being able to see” from another person’s point of view.
Insight is the ability to perceive and know your own mind. It’s your brain connecting all the dots. Your middle prefrontal cortex allows for a kind of “mental time travel” where it links the present with anything it thinks is relevant in the past to the anticipate the future.
Moral awareness requires that you move beyond your individually focused, survival needs to a vision of a larger, interconnected whole. Research shows that the middle PFC lights up on fMRI scanners when people think about behavior for social good. Moral reasoning requires the integrative capacity of the PFC to consider the emotional meaning and overrule impulses.
The middle PFC give you access to information from other interior parts of your body to produce intuitive intelligence. Science has confirmed that you have “brains” in your gut and heart. If you’ve ever had a “gut feeling,” you have your middle PFC to thank.
Most lists describing emotional and mental health and well-being are going to include these nine components in some form. The aforementioned functions are predominantly formed early in life by parent-child relationships as the brain grows. However, they are also reflective skills that can be developed and learned later in life through mindfulness. (Read: Mindfulness Is Powerful Medicine for Your Brain for a more in-depth explanation of how this happens physically.)
Your brain is capable of changing and learning new patterns at any age. Through neuroplasticity and mindfulness, you can develop skills and change brain operation for more happiness and better mental health.
Daniel J. Siegel M.D. tells us in The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being:
Studies have shown that specific applications of mindful awareness improve the ability to regulate emotion, to combat emotional dysfunction, to improve patterns of thinking, and to reduce negative mindsets. Research on some dimension of mindful awareness practices reveals that they greatly enhance the body’s functioning: Healing, immune response, stress reactivity, and a general sense of physical well-being are improved with mindfulness.”