The Power of Mindfulness: Reshape Your Brain for Calm and Compassion
It’s no surprise that the brain can change based on our experiences. After all, studies show that learning new skills such as how to juggle or speak a foreign language can cause the brain to grow in new ways. Signs of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to develop new connections throughout life—have been found everywhere. For example, one study found that taxi drivers have more gray matter in the hippocampus—the area of the brain that helps with spatial recognition and navigation, among other things—than London bus drivers. (The difference being, of course, that taxi drivers must learn the whole city while bus drivers learn a single route.)
But this brain transformation isn’t only affected by what we do—it can also come about due to how we think and feel. “Our lifestyle and behavior can significantly influence the way that our brain is shaped,” says Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a research fellow in the department of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “We have different pathways that can facilitate different behaviors.” Overuse the regions associated with depression, and the pathways for happiness—which aren’t being used—become weaker.
Luckily, the opposite is also true, and one way to achieve a more positive outlook is through meditation. People who meditate regularly, like Buddhist monks, have different neural structures, says Zeidan. “They have brain regions that can process much higher levels of compassion and awareness than a normal person.” A landmark study from 2008 found that experienced meditators had increased brain activity while hearing emotional sounds like crying or laughter than those with less experience. Turns out the act of meditation actually trained them to be more attuned to the needs of others.
Research also suggests that these and other changes translate to lower levels of stress and anxiety and greater well-being. And you don’t need to meditate for years on end to start reaping the benefits: One study showed brain transformations after just 8 weeks of regular meditation.
But this elevated mood and enhanced sense of awareness isn’t something meditators only experience while sitting with their eyes closed. “Evidence is growing that the state of meditation transforms into personality traits,” says Zeidan.
“The more you sit in meditation, the more your everyday non-meditative life looks like meditation.”
In real life this might mean that you have an easier time shrugging off worries, and that setbacks—from traffic jams to major upsets—don’t hit you quite as hard.
With meditation, your brain is effectively being rewired: As your feelings and thoughts morph toward a more pleasant outlook your brain is also transforming, making this way of thought more of a default. “We can see that the relationship between these self-reported behavior changes correlate with the changes in the brain,” says Zeidan. The more your brain changes from meditation, the more you react to everyday life with that same sense of calm, compassion, and awareness.
According to Zeidan, the whole point of meditation is to take what you learn from the practice and transform it to the rest of your life. He says this is both a conscious and subconscious practice: At the start of your meditation practice you might be doing what he calls “conscious appraisal”—where you look at a situation and try to actively apply some of the calm you’ve learned through meditation to it. Over time, mindfulness will take a lot less conscious thought—it’ll become automatic. And, according to research, this can translate to greater levels of happiness and self-satisfaction.
“That place where being mindful becomes more second-nature is where the plastic change in the mind happens,” says Zeidan. “It’s not effortful. You don’t say you’re going to be mindful, you just are. But if you don’t practice it’ll go away. Like training a muscle. If you stop, over time that muscle is going to deteriorate.”
How can you do this on your own? Start with a single minute of meditation, sitting in silence or listening to a guided meditation, then gradually increase your time.
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