Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness – At the Intersection of Spirituality and Science

Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness are areas which have grown exponentially in popularity over the last few years. More and more people are becoming aware of the concept of neuroplasticity, just as many people are beginning to try mindfulness meditation in their daily lives.

But what are these two concepts, and how do they relate to one another?

On the surface, it might appear as though neuroplasticity and mindfulness are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to self-healing. Mindfulness has a reputation for being a spiritual practice, while neuroplasticity is a scientific concept. However, research into both neuroplasticity and mindfulness meditation has shown that they are intrinsically linked when it comes to knowledge about the brain and consciousness and how the way we think can alter our mental health.

What is Neuroplasticity?

During the last four decades, research into neuroplasticity has changed the way that researchers think about how the brain develops and functions from childhood into later life. Earlier thinking about brain development suggested that, after a period of intense growth and cognitive pruning during childhood and adolescence, the adult brain became essentially ‘hardwired’ and static.

However, this was shown to be false; the brain is in fact remarkably malleable and adaptive, continually changing throughout life. Additionally, the experiences and areas of learning which a person focuses on affects how the brain changes. There do remain what’s called ‘critical periods’ of early development, where the brain’s ability to carry out tasks such as language or facial recognition has a set window of opportunity during which these abilities can be developed. However, recent research has suggested that even this window may be more flexible than previously supposed.

What’s now understood is that the brain constantly changes, even up into a person’s old age. These changes are often explained by the term – ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.

Our brains are made up of over 100 billion neural cells, and the brain both creates new neural pathways when old cells die, and creates new pathways between existing neurons, depending on which neurons are used. As you learn new skills and focus on these skills your brain will go through a process of synaptic pruning, where the most used neurons will create pathways and one’s which aren’t used will eventually go out of use altogether.

Therefore, the way we think and our predominant emotional states and ways of learning help tell the brain which pathways to use. Over time these will strengthen or weaken depending on how often they are repeated.

So, how does this relate to Mindfulness meditation?

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.”

This means learning how to pay attention in each moment to thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations which arise without trying to judge them as either ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Mindfulness is a way to become comfortable with things as they are, exploring within a framework of open-minded curiosity.

Typically, Mindfulness will involve exercises such as sitting meditation, with particular attention being paid to the breath, the body and to emotions and thoughts as they arise. Other exercises such as bodyscans – where various parts of the body are deliberately held in detail – can be used, as well as exercises such as mindful eating – where a piece of food, such as a raisin or grape is eaten slowly and mindfully. These exercises teach people how to pay closer attention to what’s happening in the present, rather than focusing on ruminating, worrying or planning for future events, or following trains of thought randomly.

Mindfulness teaches that the mind wanders very naturally, and each practice is designed to accept this and to gently and non-judgmentally keep bringing attention back to the present-moment, via the Mindfulness exercise.

Over time, as the practitioner develops their ability to use Mindfulness via regular daily engagement with it, the brain begins to respond.

Mindfulness is Neuroplasticity in Action

Studies have shown that an eight-week course in Mindfulness meditation showed a noticeable effect in the brain. MRI’s showed that the amygdala – the brain’s primal ‘fight or flight’ response center – appeared to shrink. This region of the brain plays a part in fear and stress responses. At the same time the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for actions such as concentration, decision-making and awareness, began to get thicker.

In addition, the studies showed that the way the two areas interact also changed. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakened, while areas responsible for better concentration and awareness connected more strongly.

Further research has also shown advanced Mindfulness practitioners report feeling less pain intensity than those who do not practice. Meditators don’t develop a weaker ability to feel pain, rather the way their brain speaks to different regions changes the way it is processed. Zen practitioners lessen their aversion to stimulus such as feeling pain, rather than blocking it altogether. Many people with issues such as anxiety, depression and chronic stress have reported a lessening in their symptoms after practicing mindfulness.

What the research into both neuroplasticity and mindfulness meditation shows is that we have the potential for a much greater degree of control of our brains and how our ‘wiring’ affects our daily mindsets than was previously thought. It can take time to allow the changes from areas such as mindfulness meditation to really take effect, and this fits in with the viewpoint that many changes will depend on both repetition and the strength of the firing of neurons together.

We’ve all experienced for example how tiring mentally it felt to learn to drive, but how ‘second-nature’ it became by the time we had practiced and passed our test. Much of this is because it takes energy to lay down new neural pathways, so the brain likes to take routes which are already well-established.

Creating new pathways, especially in relation to long-term negative thinking or anxiety, can take concerted effort. Eventually, however, the brain will respond to a pathway which has been laid down from repeated practice – such as a calmer response to anxiety-inducing situation – which has been cultivated using tools such as mindfulness.

Science and Spirituality – The Intersection

In recent years, there’s been a good deal of interest in connecting concepts which have often seemed to be more ‘spiritually’ based such as mindfulness meditation, to cutting-edge scientific research. The benefits of mindfulness have been known to Eastern practitioners for many thousands of years, however for others the idea that mindfulness is ‘New Age’ or merely ‘Spiritual’ lead to aversion or believing it’s just a placebo at best until it was explored via scientific methods.

With the advance of MRI and other brain imaging techniques, we now know more than ever about how the brain functions, and scientific research is often aligning with the intuitive and experiential reports from those who have engaged with the mind via practices such as mindfulness.

Increasing numbers of researchers from across multiple disciplines in the scientific and spiritual communities are calling for collaboration and sharing of research and ideas. Conferences such as the ‘SANDS’ – Science and Non-Duality Conference, which aims to – “Heal the schism between science and spirituality while forging a new understanding of what it means to be human – inspired by the mystics and grounded in modern science” are growing in popularity.

Books such as “The Quantum and the Lotus,”by Mathieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan in which the authors – a Buddhist monk from a scientific family and an award-winning astrophysicist from a Buddhist family – discuss how their research and spiritual beliefs complement each other, offer fascinating insights into innovative ways of approaching the intersection of science and spirituality.

The advances in knowledge of how the brain functions, as well as developments in research at the intersection of spirituality and science, offers both inspiration and hope to those who may previously have felt helpless and ‘doomed’ to suffer the painful inner workings of their mind.

What neuroplasticity offers is the knowledge that positive change can occur, even for those who may have had problems with areas such as long-term depression and anxiety. Mindfulness offers a tool for that change. Just as we are not only our bodies or our minds, and the world isn’t only the material or the spiritual, neuroplasticity when coupled with mindfulness shows how a holistic whole mind-spirit approach to healing can bring incredible benefits.

Guest article writer: Emily Gregory

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