This is the third post in a multi-installment series on mindfulness.  Preceding posts include An Introduction to Mindfulness, and Mindfulness & Leadership Development

The benefits of mindfulness, such as improved mental and physical well-being, have been documented in research-based studies for more than thirty years.  But with recent advances in neuroscience, we can now actually see the impact that mindfulness has on the brain.

Norman Farb, with the University of Toronto, published a paper in 2007 that showed the differences in brain activity between a group with no mindfulness training (novice) and a group that received eight weeks of mindfulness training (MT).  The MT group received classroom instruction for one hour and 45 minutes each week, and averaged 30 minutes of mindfulness practice each day.  He put both groups through a series of exercises to engage first a narrative mind, then a mindful mind.  He used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view brain activity during the different exercises.

Farb’s work shows that different part of the brain are active when the brain is in narrative mode and when the brain is in mindful mode.  (Farb uses the term experiential instead of mindful).  Consistent with Marcus Raichle’s work, Farb found that in a narrative mind, the parts of the brain that are active are:  the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is responsible for monitoring the environment, memory retrieval, and understanding what other people believe; and the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC), which is responsible for complex cognitive and emotional processes, such as memory for self-knowledge and similar others, and making predictions for the future.  In a mindful mind, other parts of the brain are active instead, such as the insula, responsible for detecting internal stimuli, and the secondary somatosensory area (SII), responsible for detecting outside stimuli.  In a mindful mind, the lateral pre-frontal cortex (LPFC), responsible for emotional regulation and control, is also active.  These different areas of brain activity are consistent with the description of narrative vs. mindful mind from previous posts.

Farb discovered two interesting results.  The first is that the MT group showed less activity in the narrative regions of the brain and more activity in the mindful parts of the brain, regardless of whether they were engaged in narrative or mindful exercises.  The second is that in the novice group, even when they were asked to participate in a mindful exercise, the narrative parts of the brain stayed active at the same time – they were unable to be purely mindful.  However, in the MT group, Farb found that they were able to be purely mindful.  In other words, without practice in mindfulness, we are simply unable to be mindful – our narrative mind continues to be active!  But with mindfulness training, we create the ability for ourselves to be mindful.

Judson Brewer at Yale University calls this “brain training” and echoes this sentiment.  “Anything you train to do, you do better.”  His study, published in 2011, showed the long-term effects of practicing mindfulness.  Similar to the Farb results, he found that very experienced mindfulness practitioners – on average more than 10,000 hours – had decreased narrative activity, whether or not they were in a mindful mindset.  He also found increased connectivity between narrative regions of the brain and the areas of the brain responsible for self-control and focusing attention. This suggests that the practice of mindfulness can actually rewire our brains and create a new “default” mode, improving our ability to focus and be aware.

Mindfulness changes our brains in other ways, too.  Sara Lazar and Britta Hölzel, researchers affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, found that mindfulness increases gray matter in the insula and decreases the size of the amygdala, the primitive part of our brains responsible for the reactive “fight-or-flight” response.

All of these studies show that while we are not naturally mindful, the more we practice mindfulness, the better we become at it.  And in practicing mindfulness, we actually change the structure of our brains and how our brains work.  In the next post, I’ll talk about what it means to practice mindfulness, and how you can start to be a more mindful leader.

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