The word mindfulness is all the buzz. Slowly rising in popularity since the 1950’s the term is translated from sati from the Buddhist tradition, understood as focusing awareness on the present moment with your mental state. Feelings, thoughts and sensations from the body are noticed, accepted and examined from a non-judgmental stance while creating intention for your life. For the purposes of this article mindfulness can encompass activities including prayer, chanting, meditation, yoga, scanning your body with an awareness practice, breath work, mindful seeing, accepting your thoughts and feelings and more. With all the buzz around mindfulness, why does this matter? And furthermore, why does this matter to your brain?
Mindfulness is of particular interest to specific areas of the brain, which are the limbic and middle prefrontal regions. The first 18 months of life determine how the right hemisphere of the brain wires in attachment styles, a sense of safety and a sense of security. Traumatic experiences, lack of attunement and connection with caregivers directly harm the development of this crucial connection in the brain. The connection from the limbic and middle prefrontal region determines specific outcomes in your life. Implicit memories encoded in the first 18 months of life impact behavior, perception, sensation and direct how you anticipate how life will develop in addition to how consciously aware you are in directing how you perceive the world and act.
Participating in any mindfulness activity has been shown by Dr. Dan Siegel and described by Bonnie Badenoch (2008; 2011) to strengthen the connection between the middle prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Nine outcomes have been shown to result from mindfulness. What we find interesting is the first seven are also the result from secure attachment.
- Regulation of the body. Safety and ease occurs in our bodies when there is flow between activation and relaxation. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system are balanced. When integration of the middle prefrontal region occurs, you experience trust and resilience. When linked to the limbic system, the fight, flight, freeze response is slowed down, allowing the nervous system an opportunity to gain balance and recover. When the nervous system is balanced, evaluation of the situation can happen instead of the reoccurrence of old patterns.
- Attuned communication. Attunement between a parent and child is crucial for secure attachment to happen. Being able to sense your child’s state and communicate your felt understanding non-verbally (and verbally) of what their emotional experience is directly develops secure attachment. The integration of social circuits of the middle prefrontal region allows you to send and receive attuned signals to your child and others. This happens in milliseconds. The content of the discussion can be accurate but without attunement, your child and others will sense the lack of synchrony.
- Regulation of emotion. Without the integration of the middle prefrontal region and limbic system you will likely experience big emotional swings from minor (and major) triggers from long ago placed implicit memories. When we practice mindfulness the hypothalamus and pituitary loop releasing neurotransmitters and hormones matching emotional tone can sense the movement of emotion in our bodies. As the integration increases, the pathway becomes more complex assisting emotions from going to extremes. In stressful situations, emotional responses are much more easily balanced.
- Response flexibility. Pausing before acting, evaluating your response and responding appropriately allows for appropriate responses to situations. Are you responding in a mature or childish manner? Practicing mindfulness directly impacts the quick-trigger response that may occur with the lack of integration from this region.
- Empathy. Empathy is able to occur from mirror neurons, specialized neural cells, that allow you to resonate internally and accurately with another person. This network of resonance circuits allow you to sense the other accurately with inner awareness of your body and the understanding of what you are feeling followed by awareness.
- Insight. Insight is a self-knowing awareness and a narrative of you. Insight allows for the ability to tell your story that is connected to its meaning while being understandable. The integration of the middle prefrontal cortex and limbic system allows for a sense of meaning in our life while having compassion and wisdom in relation to our family and extended family.
- Fear extinction. Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) is delivered through axonal fibers in the integration of the middle prefrontal cortex and limbic system. This sooths the fears that are based in implicit memory.
- Intuition. When your body signals something, it is often the first awareness you have of emotion. Intimately involved in affective experience, “knowing” something through intuition occurs from this integration.
- Morality Acting morally is a direct by-product of empathically connecting with others. And the interconnection that results from the increased neural integration creates the foundation of decision-making that accounts for others.
When your middle prefrontal integration is deeply rooted the more you will be able to handle the upsets of life. Another influence on the localized emotion networks of the brain can be neurofeedback. Research has demonstrated that upregulating areas including the middle prefrontal cortex and limbic system allows for a higher degree of control of these networks. These findings demonstrate that neurofeedback of emotion networks is another therapeutic tool in addition to practicing mindfulness. We want to be your coach in integrating these neural networks utilizing both mindfulness and neurofeedback to help you in your journey toward regulation, attunement, flexibility, empathy, insight, fear extinction, intuition and morality. Join us.
Badenoch, B. (2008) Being A Brain-Wise Therapist. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Badenoch, B. (2011) The Brain-Savvy Therapist’s Workbook. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Johnston, S.J., Boehm, S.G., Healy, D., Goebel, R., Linden, D.E.J. (2010) Neurofeedback: A promising tool for the self-regulation of emotion networks. NeuroImage: 49(1) 1066-1072.