One of the most important scientific breakthroughs in recent years that supports mindfulness practice is neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to change through learning and experience. Before the understanding of neuroplasticity the brain was thought to be fixed after childhood and deteriorated with age. Scientific studies now indicate that this is not true and that the brain can continue to develop throughout the lifespan by creating new neural pathways or inhibiting ones that are not useful. Neuroplastic therapies like mindfulness offer hope to people suffering from brain related disorders like depression, anxiety and other mental health problems because they do actually change the brain over time.
The brain is a fascinating and complex organ. It is not necessary to know the detailed parts of the brain but learning a little bit about how the brain functions can be a motivator to engage in regular mindfulness practice. When we do physical exercise, we know that we are improving our health by building strength, endurance and flexibility. Mindfulness practice can be thought of as exercise for the brain that improves clarity, focus and resilience to the mind.
There is a saying that the neurons that fire together, wire together. When we learn something, the memory is consolidated through a network of neurons that fire at the same time and get stronger with repetition. Consider how this works with thoughts and emotions. If we learn that dogs bite early in life and develop a fear of dogs, that association will be reinforced every time we have the thought paired with the emotion. This association is strengthened through rumination, the unconscious thoughts that go on the background of our awareness every time we encounter or think about a dog.
Another aphorism from Dan Siegel (2018) is: "Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows". Mindfulness, or any kind of awareness practice, trains attention to create new, adaptive neural pathways. In the example of fear of dogs, we know that other people have very different associations. They may experience comfort and emotional bonding with dogs which is an expression of different neural pathways associated with a pleasant experience. Attention training can help us to notice positive associations and develop the neural pathways that inhibit the experience of fear and strengthen feelings of comfort and pleasure.
Every time we turn our attention to a pleasant feeling - whether it be gratitude, joy, kindness, generosity, we are rehearsing and strengthening those feelings. With practice these feelings become more accessible, even in the midst of feeling anxious or depressed. We also know that every time we turn our attention to the present moment experience, feelings, sensations, thoughts as they occur, we are turning off the mind’s habit of rumination and getting caught in negative throughout/feeling cycles. The present moment is always available to us - it just takes effort to keep remembering that it is there. Knowing that the brain can hold these changes through practice can be an excellent motivator for continuing the practice.
Rachael Frankford, MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker in private practice. This blog is to share musings on mental health and about the intersection of mindfulness, neuroscience, and psychotherapy.