by Vamsi Koneru
A few years ago, I was sitting on the bench in my mudroom, preparing to leave my house to deliver my first presentation on the neuroscience of mindfulness. Nervousness is a bit of an understatement. As I was finishing my preparation, promising myself that this would be the last time that I would check my bag, my youngest son walked into the room. He stuck his hand into his pocket, then held his hand out in my direction and in his fingers was a beautiful marble. If you’ve ever met my youngest son, you would know that marbles hold a special currency for him so I was touched that he noticed that I was nervous and was offering me this adorable, calming gesture — a gesture that, in my mind, communicated care and connection, perhaps to let me know that things would go well. As he handed it to me, he said, “Dad, when people get bored by what you’re saying, you can just let them play with this.”
Needless to say, I was humbled.
Fundamentally, the story of mindfulness and the brain is one of relationships. Cultivating a mindfulness practice and deepening our understanding of the mind provides us with opportunities to enhance our understanding of ourselves, our environments, and our communities. When I consider the brain, I find it staggering and awe-inspiring. How does this 3-pound organ, composed of over 80 billion neurons, considered by many to be the most complex system in the known universe, give rise to us — our thoughts, feelings, fears and hopes.
And, perhaps even more staggering, the brain is a plastic system that is consistently shaped by its own thoughts, practices and interactions. Scientific dogma had been that the brain became concretized in later adolescence and it was a game marked only by loss thereafter. However, the emerging discoveries in the field of experience dependent neuroplasticity highlight that, from cradle to grave, the brain is a highly malleable and adaptive system — one that consistently changes its structure and function in response to both internal experience as well as interpersonal relationships. As the neuroscientist David Eagleman teaches us, “we are all works in progress.”
Numerous studies demonstrate that the practice of mindfulness may cause significant alterations in the structure and function of the brain, in areas involved in thought, emotional reactivity, and somatic awareness. The mental, emotional, and interpersonal training of mindfulness, a practice hinged to the idea of cultivating traits of non-judgmental awareness, can create a deep impact on us by improving our capacity to focus, increasing our resiliency to stress and deepening our compassion for others.
We may worry that these types of changes and benefits are only available to monks, nuns, and yogis who have dedicated their lives to these practices. Thankfully, this does not appear to be the case. The process of neuroplasticity, wittingly or unwittingly, is consistently occurring and we have the opportunity to deeply influence this process. The late neuropsychologist Donald Hebb stated, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” With regard to mindfulness, research is now demonstrating that the type of practice we engage in — whether an attentional-focused practice including the mindfulness of the breath, a compassion-focused practice including loving-kindness meditation or a perspective-taking practice such as the perspective-dyad — will have positive, differential effects on the brain circuitry underlying these processes. In essence, what we practice will grow stronger.
Of course, as is the beauty of science, there are far more questions than answers. With this said, the data continue to converge on the potential of mindfulness to deeply influence our relationships with ourselves and our world.
I continue to be humbled.