Freedom is about having choice. If I am aware of my automatic reactions to experience as they arise, then I can take a breath, creating a space for something new. I can choose a response in that moment, one that reflects the version of me that I aspire to be.
The brain is a highly complex organ that makes a contribution to nearly every aspect of the body’s functioning; from awareness of where we are in space, to highly complex thought, to consciousness itself.
It contains about seventy-five billion nerve cells, each of which can make roughly a thousand connections with other neurons. There are about the same number of support cells as well.
Because it is so vital to human functioning the brain is well protected inside the skull.
The evolution of the brain that has occurred over the last several million years has enabled the human species to go from being prey animals to the top predator on the planet.
Different parts of the brain serve different functions.
The “older” parts of the brain are involved in controlling our more basic physiological functions, such as breathing, appetite, sexual drives, and survival responses. We have developed a finely tuned “fight or flight” response to warn us of potential danger, and this allows us to respond in a timely fashion to maximise our chances of survival.
This reflex is intended to keep us alive by either running away, or preparing us to fight for our lives, and then running away.
One of the more obvious effects is the redirecting of blood flow to the muscles, which results in the empty feeling in our stomach when we are afraid or anxious.
One major cognitive effect is a refocusing of our attention on to whatever might be threatening us. This permits increased awareness of potential dangers, and a decrease in the amount of attention paid to anything else. Our brain wants us to be aware of the things that might make our danger worse.
To help us responsd more rapidly to any threat, our thinking is switched off, so that we react without having an internal committee meeting first.
In the modern world this response is often triggered by events, or even thoughts, that are not really life or death in nature. This can affect both our physical and mental health when chronic stress responses are generated in the body. Chronic stress may lead to conditions such as the metabolic syndrome and depression.
The last part of the brain that developed in humans is the cerebral cortex. This is the part that makes the brain look something like a walnut. It is the changes in the aptly named neocortex, that have been responsible for a near tripling in the size of the brain over the last 150,000 years or so.
The cortex is involved in assessing sensory input so that we can unscramble the incoming sensations from our world, and so helps to guide our required response. It is also the part of the brain where we consider the impact of our actions, and calculate their likely consequences.
The frontal lobes are the areas where most of this behavioural fortune-telling takes place, a process that is particularly inaccurate in depressed or anxious people.
We can use our thoughts to override the danger warning systems of the body, and so are able to modulate our responses. It is this ability to make decisions on the available evidence that is used to good effect in cognitive behavioural therapy, using logic and evidence to help switch off the brain’s emotional alarm system.
The two sides of the brain, the cerebral hemispheres, are connected together and work in harmony to help us understand the world in which we live. The left hemisphere tends to undertake thinking that is more structured and scientific, liking lists and logic. It tends to analyse form and structure. The right hemisphere is more concerned with function and use, focussing on the creative side of life and emotional expression. It helps us to decide how an object, or action might make us feel and to modulate our responses accordingly.
In western society there is a tendency towards scientific rationalism, and to be rather left brain dominant in our view of the world. This means that we are likely to overthink the situation and to have minds full of chatter. We live lives of action, tending to be frantically busy, doing something rather than slowing down to smell the roses.
It is vital to be gentle and kind to ourselves.
One of the most noticeable effects that mindfulness has on the brain is a better integration of the functioning of the two hemispheres. This results in a greater sense of calm, a stilling of the brain’s monkey mind, and a greater sense of unity between our emotions and our thoughts. In part, this is due to a better balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, with the result that reduced levels of stress hormones are released into the body and a resultant improvement in our physical and emotional health.
One error that beginning meditators often make is in trying to force the issue. We try to make our minds clear by force rather than relaxing into it, and then we beat ourselves up for not being good at meditating. This puts the balance even further out of kilter meaning we are further from our goal.
For this reason it is vital to be gentle and kind to ourselves as we take up and continue to develop a meditation practice.
What actually happens in our brain when we meditate or practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.
When we start to meditate we focus on one thing, such as our breathing, to the exclusion of other stimuli. We do not ignode other stimuli, but try notto become involved with them. We bring our focus back to our target each time we find our thoughts and mind wandering. This leads to increased activity in the parts of the frontal lobes that are involved with focussed attention.
As our focus increases, the activity in these attentional areas also increases. The parts of the brain that analyse these sensations become less active, filtering out the sensations that are not relevant. This results in our becoming even more focussed on the object of our meditation, and we gradually become more narrowly focussed on the present, here and now, moment.
This greater clarity in focus is associated with a further reduction in our awareness of incoming sensory information and this results in some disorientation in time and space. This is possibly due to the greater activity in the right parietal lobe that occurs in this state. The parietal lobe also sends connections to the limbic system which stimulates the amygdala, giving emotional significance to our current experience. In this case it is the clarity resulting from the reduced sensory input that is of significance, and this results in altered autonomic nervous system functioning.
First of all this brings about a calm and blissful state that is generated by maximal stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is then followed by clarity and focus induced by sympathetic nervous system activity. The resultant mental states are accompanied by changes in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure.
Reduced activity in our left and right-sided verbal and conceptual association areas, brings about a sense of unity and wholeness, along with a sense of dissolution in the boundaries that we sense between ourselves and others. This leads to greater compassion.
This meditative state adds clarity to our thinking and can help us to control our emotional responses to events and thoughts, in both our past and current lives. We are increasingly able to react from a sense of what is actually happening at the moment, rather than making emotional responses based on past events.
Our predictions are then no longer determined by events that have happened in our past, but instead are based on our experience of what is happening right here and now.
Current research into mindfulness practice shows positive benefits from this particular meditation technique across various critical cognitive skills. This is shown by higher performance in tests by mindfulness practitioners than is seen in a non meditating group.
These kinds of effect can be seen after meditating for only twenty minutes a day for four days.
Other benefits that have been seen include much improved concentration, better study skills, better health, less depression and greater longevity, even enlightenment!
Better quality relationships with other people and a much improved relationship with ourselves are also seen, as we develop a stronger sense of compassion, both for ourselves and others. This sense of compassion arises as we become aware of the impermanent, and usually reactive nature of much of our thinking and emotional responses.
Imagine what other benefits this could have with a lifelong practice?