Mindfulness Practice Increases Brain Gray Matter Density

The mindfulness practice increases the gray matter density in the specific regions of the brain. The gray matter of the brain consists mainly of neurons. It is primarily associated with processing and cognition as opposed to white matter which mainly acts as a relay between different parts of the brain.

According to a study conducted at Harvard Medical School in 2010, the mindfulness practices specifically increase the gray matter density in following areas.

Hippocampus

Temporo-Parietal Junciton

Posterior Cingulate Cortex

Cerebellum

The primary role of the hippocampus is in new memory formation. But it is also involved in regulating emotions, responsiveness and arousal. People with major depression and PTSD(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are found to have a lower gray matter density in the hippocampus. Stress also causes density reduction of hippocampus. It has the ability to self regenerate. SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), which include commonly used antidepressants are known to increase the volume of the hippocampus. In some ways, meditation produces the same effect as anti-depressants.

Temporo-parietal junction is involved in social cognition. Social cognition is the ability to infer mental states like intentions, desires and goals of other people. In our tightly connected social lives, this faculty is much more important that we realize. Increasing density in this area is also believed to increase compassion and empathy for others.

The posterior cingulate cortex is active when assessing the relevance of a stimulus to oneself. More importantly, all three, hippocampus, temporo-parietal junction and posterior cingulate cortex, together form a brain network that support variety of forms of self projections including the projections that conceives the viewpoint of others. This indicates that the increased gray matter density in the above mentioned brain parts is involved in affecting the view of the self and how we conceive viewpoint of others. These traits largely influence our emotional stability or emotional  intelligence.

The parts within the cerebellum that got denser are the parts responsible for emotional and cognitive regulation. They are involved in regulating appropriateness of the emotional and cognitive response. Other regions with increased density near the brainstem are responsible for synthesizing and releasing norepinephrine and serotonin. It is known that both of these hormones are intimately connected with behavioral optimization and mood control. Their deficit is known to lead to conditions like depression and ADHD(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

As you can see mindfulness practices increase density of gray matter in the regions of brain involved in memory formation, regulation of emotions, regulation of behavior, stress management, taking proper perspective, correctly inferring the viewpoint of others and correctly understanding the emotional state of others. All of which are foundational  attributes for enhanced emotional intelligence and memory.

Over the past decade, there has been multiple studies that support these findings. This is one of the reason a whole range of mindfulness based interventions are used by mental health professionals.

We will explore more of the health benefits of mindfulness practice in future posts. Feel free to drop in your questions or comments.

-SR.

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FREE Session for Mindfulness Training Classes

I am starting a new series of ‘Mindfulness Training for Stress Reduction’ classes. This series consists of 6 sessions. Each session will be approximately 2 and 1/2 hours. First session of this series is FREE. It will be held coming Saturday 26th of April. The classes will be held at the Room #1, in the education building of the Bethany Presbyterian Church. No, I am not affiliated with the church in any way, I am just renting the space from the church.

As I mentioned the first session is completely free. There is no obligation. I always list the benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation in general. There are many benefits and they are all real! It may sound too good to be true or unrealistic and I understand that.

We all get bombarded with so many marketing messages, it is natural for us to be skeptical of any message that comes across. But the truth needs to be told. And here is your opportunity to dip your toes and find out for yourself, what really this ancient practice of mindfulness and meditation is all about.

Throughout the ages, individuals who have seriously used the methods I will cover in the class, have claimed to have found something profound and enriching. It has the potential to completely transform you. Come on over for the free session. You can click the following link to register for the class.

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Dates: #_EVENTDATES, Times: #_EVENTTIMES
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Place: Room #1, in the education building of the Bethany Presbyterian Church
15505 NW Springville Rd
Portland, OR 97229

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Mindfulness Training Improves Your Attention and Focus.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that meditation practice improves attention. After all meditation practice is mainly a training in attention. During meditation we work with an anchor. This anchor is the object of our attention and focus. You start by resting our attention on the anchor. You find that it is extremely difficult for us to maintain the focus on the anchor. You tend to wander or drift off and start thinking, imagining or visualizing things. This is the default nature of our mind. But you also recognize at times that you have wandered away from the anchor. Once you realize you bring yourself back to the anchor.

As you can see, this is nothing but attention training. It is strengthening of the attention muscle. One explicitly tries to cultivate better focus by focusing on something and repeatedly bringing yourself back to the focusing.

What is not obvious is that, same meditation training also improves something called conflict attention. Conflict attention is the scenario when there are more than one external stimuli vying for your attention. In simple words you have multiple things that demand your attention and you struggle to attend to any of them.

Now it is established that our mind can only focus one thing at a time. Our mind only has the resources to fully attend to only a single object. When we multitask, we are basically swiftly moving our attention from one object to another in such a way that it gives an illusion as if we are fully attending to more than one item. In reality, that is not the case. At a given moment we only can attend to a single object.

Going back to conflict attention. Let me try to give you an idea what it really is before we talk more as to why it is so important.

Bear with me as you go through the following slide of colors. You can say the color name.

stroop_colors

 

You can now say the following words:

Green Blue Red Blue Green Red Blue

And for the following words, say the COLOR of the words and not read the word itself. 

Blue Green Red Green Red Blue Green Red Green Blue

Well, how was it? You may have realized that it is difficult to ignore reading the word and there is rather a tendency to read the word first than to notice the color of the word first. This is because ever since we started reading fluently in our early lives, reading becomes and automatic function that gets triggered almost subconsciously. Looking up the color of some object is not as automatic a process as reading. 

This leads to a conflict of attention in the example above. The tendency to read the letters competes for attention with the requirement to look up the color of the word and we end up with a conflict. The conflict would delay the color look up compared to the case when there is no conflict.

In our daily lives we are bombarded with a whole host of directives, demands and messages. Pretty much at every moment there are multiple things vying for your attention. In such an environment, the ability to discriminate and maintain your focus on a single object or matter becomes paramount. More you can maintain the focus, less distracted and less fragmented you will be. This will lead to more efficiency, less waste and possibly more productivity.

At this stage you may ask, ‘What about multitasking?’. The problem with multitasking is that, we tend to overvalue multitasking and undervalue the importance of focused attention. There are certain situation where one has to multitask and there being able to multitask is valuable. But more often the lack of the focused attention is the real issue. We will explore the issue of multitasking in a future post.

-SR

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What Is the Connection Between Mindfulness and Meditation?

In the previous posts we have talked about what mindfulness really is. Along the way we also talked about meditation. You may wonder about the relationship between mindfulness and meditation.

Let’s recap a bit what mindfulness is. Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness that arises out of paying attention in a particular way in the present moment. Although awareness comes to us naturally, it tends to carry judgments along with it. It is the non-judgmental awareness which is hard to cultivate.

In theory, it may be possible to develop this non-judgmental attitude with repeated practice and conscious recollection. But the cognitive approach is extremely unlikely to be successful. Because the judgmental nature of our mind is by no means a random accident. The judgmental nature of mind has been shaped by the evolution over the millions of years. It is deeply rooted and can be intractable if we limit ourselves to the default ways our mind.

It is for this purpose, we need meditation. We meditate to develop mindfulness. Meditation  is the systematic training of the mind to first develop focused attention. Once we have sharpened attention enough, we move on to the task of maintaining the awareness using the sharpened attention to the longest possible time period. This is the essential training for developing mindfulness.

Although you may have heard the term ‘mindfulness meditation’, it is best to view mindfulness as a way of being. It really is a learnable skill. But the context is very broad, essentially covering pretty much all aspects of our lives.

A disciplined regular meditation practice is a must for anyone interested in cultivating non-judgmental mindfulness.

-SR

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What is Mindfulness?

What does mindfulness really mean? You may wonder. Before we talk more informally about what it really is, lets first visit the formal definition.

There are several formal definitions of mindfulness in use. Though following definition is what general people agree upon.

“Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally.”

You may have come across a similar definition. It has four key components.

First of all it is about paying attention.

Second, it is done on purpose. That means there is intentionality.

Third, it is about the present moment. Anyone distinctly familiar with meditation would know that meditation has all to with the present moment. Although at this point you may not be very clear about the connection of meditation with mindfulness. That is something I will cover in the next post.

And fourth component is a non judgmental aspect of it.

Although it is said that mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention, it really is the state that arises out of paying attention in such a way.

Putting all the technical stuff aside, it really is awareness. Mindfulness really means a type of awareness. But not the ordinary awareness that we are all very familiar with. We know awareness very well. We can become aware of many things. We can become aware of facts, we can become aware of things, we can become aware of how we feel. We can also become aware of the fact that we can become aware. We have an awareness of awareness as well! But that’s not pertinent here.

But the mindfulness is not exactly the usual and customary awareness that we are familiar with. Because the  usual awareness that we are familiar with, is usually not free of mind’s judgments. This may not be clear to you at first. What I mean is that whenever you become aware of something, that awareness is immediately followed by likes, dislikes, commentary or some type of judgment about the fact or the object you  became aware of.

To give you an example. If I ask you to become aware of your face, you will have no problem becoming aware of your face right away. But once you become aware of your face, immediately your mind is going to start thinking like, “I don’t like my face”, “My face is too long”, “I don’t like my nose”, “I want my face to be like someone else”. The thoughts that I describe here, don’t come about because of hard contemplative effort that one may put. They come about automatically, pretty much every time you put your attention to any object. Such judgmental thoughts may not automatically happen all the time, but they happen most of the time.

It is the mind’s way of paying attention. In its default mode, it can’t pay attention without coloring the experience with judgmental thoughts. This commentary or judgmental thoughts are so much a part of our experience that we may not even realize that we have those thoughts. We tend to completely internalize them. And that precisely is the reason, this idea of judgmental thoughts may not make a whole lot of sense to you at this point.

I would argue that learning to see, our minds inner working is exactly the process to be undertaken in cultivating mindfulness. If we are able to become familiar with how our mind works at the deepest level, that enables us to see things clearly. Seeing things clearly is the very first step at attaining wisdom and beginning to address life’s difficult circumstances.

And how does one cultivate mindfulness? That is where formal training comes into play. The Portland Mindfulness Center offers classes with the very objective of helping you cultivate mindfulness practice. So that you can avail all the benefits of mindfulness.

As promised, we will talk about the relationship between mindfulness and meditation in one of the next posts.

-SR

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