Updated: Mar 27
Meditation changes our conscious experience by altering our neural wiring for the better
We can increase the strength of our pre-frontal cortex in relation to the amygdala
Increasing the strength of the pre-frontal cortex gives us a clear mind that makes productive decisions and positive emotion
Meditate for 10-20 minutes daily for 60 days to see serious benefits
Despite the attention mindfulness receives, there has been a failure to address the most important impacts it has on our psychology.
Media sources tend to focus on results while ignoring crucial details about the process; we hear how mindfulness can magically improve our focus and memory, or enhance our emotional state and life satisfaction. We may be impressed on the surface but this brush-over approach can leave us feeling uninformed and unempowered to make lasting changes to our habits. The crucial link, the "why and how" meditation works, is always missing.
This blog will go deeper and uncover the rich detail involved in the process of becoming mindful.
We will explpore the way our consciousness operates and expose the connections between the biology of the brain and our subjective experience.
We will highlight the physical changes that occur in our neurology as a result of training our minds, aswell as understanding how this impacts the relationship we have to thoughts and feelings.
We will discover exactly how this kind of mental evolution achieves an internal state that is conducive to reaching goals and unlocking fulfillment.
To understand mindfulness and its importance we need to look into the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is the state which includes everything in your subjective experience in each moment. Everything that comes into your awareness is essentially a form of stimulus that has reached your internal world and appeared in consciousness. Mindfulness is about changing the way you relate to stimulus; this includes your thoughts, emotions, and all the information you receive through your senses.
It is the brain that creates and influences this conscious experience.
We are aware of only a small picture of the overall activity in the mind. However, we are more conscious of the activity in some brain regions than of others.
The activity in the pre-frontal cortex is the area that we are most conscious of and therefore identify with (we feel like this is "us"). The pre-frontal cortex is the region of the brain that allows us to process information in a way which is considered, informed, and rational. It enables us to plan over the long term and execute on our goals regardless of the adversity and distraction we face. This area also gives us empathy, ensuring that the decisions we make are not only good for us, but also for those around us. The pre-frontal cortex produces an experience that is calm, controlled, and productive.
However, there are also areas of the brain that operate outside of our full concious awareness. They receive the same infromation from the world but have an entirely different set of reactions and processes as a result. These are older pathways in the brain. They have a basic interpretation of events and their function is often misaligned with the intricacies of modern life. The feelings and behavior they encourage are highly emotive and are often based on deep beliefs and memories we may not have explored or be in control of. Their unmonitored influence can be harmful to clear and productive thinking. The Amygdala is a prime example of this type of brain activity. Its function is associated with an overwhelming number of negative emotions and outcomes such as stress; panic, depression, procrastination, and social anxiety.
From this anlysis we can summarise two basic states of thinking:
1. Distinctly conscious thinking that is influenced by the pre-frontal cortex.
2. Less conscious thought that is controlled by emotional forces and belief systems we do not choose nor understand.
The different styles of thought determine whether we react or respond to stimulus that appear in our conscious awareness.
Unconcious reaction: The less conscious areas of the brain are fuelled by an emotional energy and urge us to react to events based on instantaneous impressions.
Concious response: The pre-frontal cortex allows us to respond to information after a deliberate thought process that is conscious and connected with our sense of self.
Responses are aligned with the values, beliefs, and character we deliberately choose to manifest in the world. Reactions on the other hand are fuelled by unexplored emotions or destructive beliefs we have about ourselves. Without “conscious” analysis we fail to make sense of these powerful unconcious influences, and remain a victim to the underlying negative feelings and patterns of behaviour they induce.
The conscious path elevates us. We respond with our most focused and conscious selves. Our thoughts are clear, precise, and aligned with actions that produce long term success (whatever success means to us). This frame of mind makes us feel strong, we gain autonomy over our lives, and feel in control.
The unconscious path pulls us down. We are moved into a state of constant reactivity. Here we feel increasingly helpless as the influence of our fears, distractions, judgements, and negative emotion take over. We remain uncertain of both our character and our ability to follow through on goals.
The good news is that we are not victims to this process, we can gain control over the path we take.
This is what mindfulness is all about. Giving us this control.
Mindfulness can change how the conscious and unconscious areas of the brain communicate and put our mind in more harmonious states. While practicing mindfulness we become more aware of our inner world and begin to watch ourselves as we continually shift between the two types of thinking. We gain a first-hand understanding of our mind and learn how to manage both of these modes of thinking. Our ability to respond to stimulus becomes stronger. We more easily recognise when we are identifying with negative states of the mind and reduce the influence of lower order thinking. We are able to engage with more positive and productive mindsets; this will signficantly benefit our daily lives.
This change in our subjective experience is the result of physical changes in the brain.
Mindfulness practice rewires our neurology.
This mechanism can easily be explained. Inside our prefrontal cortex we have two important areas the lateral and the medial cortex.
The lateral area is associated with the higher order functions discussed earlier (the ability to override our unconscious habits and behaviours). During meditation the connections between this area of the brain and the amygdala grow stronger. This allows for effective two-way communication between the higher and lower brain regions, and thus a better assessment and regulation of our negative states of mind.
As this occurs the connection between the amygdala and the medial region of the prefrontal cortex become weaker. The medial area is related to our personal experience. It creates self-referential mental activity; the "me, myself and I" thoughts. We feel connected to the medial area as it is responsible for the day to day mental chatter that relates to who we are. The weakened connection between this area and the amygdala means we feel less strongly associated with the feelings of apprehension, stress, laziness and fear (feelings associated with our lower brain regions).
Overall, we feel our minds becoming clearer and calmer as they become less influenced by emotional and irrational regions of the brain.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, science has shown that mindfulness meditation can significantly increase the volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and decrease the size of brain cells in the amygdala. These changes occur within less than 2 months of adherence to a mindfulness-based practices. In such a short time we are able to step out of the eye of emotional storms and free ourselves from the negative influence of our less conscious brain regions.
Meditation changes our brain and enhances our ability to process information. Our sense of self is distanced from overwhelming emotional signals; our rational higher order processing centres are given a boost over the lower areas that have the potential to cause us harm.
To take steps towards a new brain and a more conscious life you need to establish a basic mindfulness practice. An effective introduction to this concept is mindfulness meditation.
Accessible forms of meditation you may wish to investigate:
Vipassana (following the breath with all your attention)
Open awareness meditation (remaining open to all the senses while watching thoughts come in and out of awareness)
Alive will create content in the future to detail exactly how to carry out these practices but for now we have put links at the end of this blog to apps, podcasts, and individuals that investigate the various types of meditation in great detail.
ALIVE meditation tips:
Get an App. They will guide you (this is everything) and keep you accountable. So worth the money.
Try conducting your meditation first thing when you wake up in the morning or before you go to bed. Choose the same time everyday; adherence to meditation is best when it becomes a routine.
Find out what works for you by trying many different styles and courses.
Get into the science and understand how what you are doing is working. This will keep you interested.
Build up the practice as you feel comfortable, starting small is great- remember that a little practice is infinitely better than none!
For an investment of 10-20 minutes a day you can change your mind and the path you walk through life.
At ALIVE we are interested in interventions that benefit us now and continue to do so into the future.
How does mindfullness keep benefiting us over time?
The effects of meditation are permanent. The benefits above are all indicators of enhanced conscientiousness. The number 1 predictor of long term life success, beyond even intelligence, is conscientiousness. This is the ability to sustain effort and execute on your goals.
Why not train this ability?