The human brain is a profoundly complex organ, 90 % of its activity occurs beneath conscious awareness, which means that, even though we assume that we have some control of how we think feel and behave, modern science suggests it’s not so simple. The concept of neuroplasticity is a new and exciting area of science. It highlights that our brain is constantly being reshaped throughout our lives by both our experiences and our thoughts.
We now know that it is the focus of our awareness that determines which brain networks are strengthened and which are weakened or lost. That means that when we get caught up in cycles of worry or irritability, these are the networks within the brain that become stronger.
What we practice becomes stronger
So the more we worry, the better we become at worrying. However, on the other side of this, if we practice being calm, clear and focused, we can strengthen these networks too, as humans, our brain, differs from other animals.
This is mostly due to the front areas of the brain called the frontal lobes often called the new brain as it was the last to develop in our evolution when well developed. This part of our brain helps us to manage our strong emotions and respond with flexibility.
The amygdala and mindfulness
Even when we feel overwhelmed, it also helps us to tune into the feelings of others with empathy and insight when we feel worried, distracted or stuck on achieving goals. Our brain function is more strongly dominated by our old brain, which has a part called the amygdala. The amygdala is the powerful fight and flight response which switches on when we feel stressed, or anxious and releases hormones and chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline.
That is why stress has such a big impact on us. Mindfulness is a technique that can help us to manage this process more effectively by building our skills of attention, concentration and a capacity to direct our awareness in a certain way. This all means that we are less likely to be swept up by a strong emotion and the power of the amygdala.
It’s your choice
It also means we can bring choice to our emotions and our thoughts. In doing so, we’re playing an active role in changing the way the structure of our brain develops. In much the same way, we can change the shape of our body by doing certain exercises at the gym.
When we practice meditation regularly, we build a capacity to become aware of thinking and emotion, as our mind becomes more settled. Our nervous system is able to take in more accurate information and we can access capacities for creativity, flexibility and lateral thinking which enable us to manage challenging situations more skillfully.
When we build skills of mindfulness, we still experience negative feelings, like frustration, disappointment, fear or irritability. But the research shows that we recover much more quickly. We now know from research into brain development that regular meditation and mindfulness practice reduces the size of the amygdala, reduces levels of stress hormones and strengthens connections to the frontal lobes.
This all means that we’re more likely to live with less stress and more happiness.