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May 23, 2019

A Practice that changes your Brain

  • By Professor Dr Maung

A brain and a computer
A brain, though more complex, is comparable with a computer.
There are as many as 80 to 100 billion neurons in a brain. Each one of them forms many connections with others by the wire-like extensions called ‘axons’. In fact a brain is a huge complex of neuronal network like a computer operating through the connections between transistors.
A fast speed computer with core i7 CPU has 1.7 billion transistors. In a brain there are hundreds of trillions of transistors-like connections which are called synapses. Unlike a computer in which the transistors connections (circuit) are fixed, the connections between the neurons are changing throughout the life. The brain possesses an ability to change in many aspects, such as brain activity activated with specific function, the volume of grey matters and the appearance and disappearance of synapses over the time. This ability of the brain to change in structure and activity is referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’. Because of this ability, we can learn newer knowledge and habits and at the same time we can wipe out the obsolete knowledge and undesirable habits.

Emotional Brain and Rational Brain
When response to a stimulus two parts of brain react in different ways.
One is the most primitive part of the brain that reacts without thinking. The part of the brain situated at the back in the region called ‘amygdala’ is responsible for this. Amygdala which is also called ‘Emotional brain’ is the seat of basest survival instincts: feeding, mating, fighting and flighting.
The other part of the brain is more rational and is responsible for problem solving, conscious thoughts, and learning to control emotions. This region of the brain is found in Prefrontal cortex
and called ‘Rational brain’. Because of this brain human beings can act logically instead emotionally.
Neuroscientist Dr Mathew Lieberman (2007) found out that when amygdala (emotional brain) is active there is less activation of prefrontal cortex (rational brain) and vice vasa, meaning that the activity of two brains are conflicting to each other. When emotional brain wins, a person follows the instinct-nature of actions like selfishness, anger, anxious thoughts. On the other hand when rational brain is working, a person is doing along the line of rational thoughts and judgment.
However there are times when activity of emotional brain outburst and over-power the rational brain. At that moment a person acts illogically and become verbally abusive or physically violent. This state of situation is called ‘Emotional hijack’. As the result the person has to face all the consequences of his bad actions.
Thus it is crucial for all of us to prevent from being hijacked by emotional brain. But how?

Research evidences
Introducing of functional MRI in 1990 allowed researchers to look more details into the brain.
Using this technology, neuroscientists are able to find out the changes in brain during and after meditation practice.
The strongest scientific evidences to date that mindfulness practice has positive benefits comes from two meta-analysis of meditation results.
The first meta-analysis of 47 trials with 3,515 participants found that people participating in mindfulness research experienced less anxiety, depression and pain. The second meta-analysis of 163 studies found that meditation practice is associated with reduced negative emotions and neuroticism.
A study done by Dr Sara Lazar in 2005 on individuals with extensive meditation experiences revealed that the brain volume increased in prefrontal cortex and decreased in amygdala.
The other 21 studies done separately on 300 participants showed that the neural connections in meditators is greater than the control counterparts.
All these research evidences are pointing towards a single fact that mindfulness practice can prevent the over-control of emotional brain and keep the emotional hijack at bay.

The way they practiced
The participants in all the research used the Buddhist way of insight meditation.
Professor Dr John Kabat-Zinn (1994) defined mindfulness as ‘paying attention on purpose non-judgmentally in the present moment’.
Dr J A Brewer (2011) Yale University School of Medicine used the method which he named as R A I N. R: Recognize, A; Accept, I; Investigate, N; Note mind states, emotions and body sensation.
Dr Mathew D Lieberman (2007) University of California, Los Angeles used the method called ‘Affect labelling’ by which the feelings are put into words. The participants verbalized the feelings in the mind. When they experienced anger/pain, they had to say anger, anger /pain, pain in their mind.
Both methods were found to be effective in managing emotional experiences.

Take home message
The practice of mindfulness discovered over 2500 years ago by Gautama Buddha is now regarded as a ‘must do practice’ rather than a ‘nice to do’ for everyone.
Research have found that mindfulness training alters our brain and how we engaged with ourselves, others and our work. When practice and applied, it fundamentally changes the operating system of the mind. Through repeated practice, brain activity is redirected from ancient, reactionary part of the brain, to the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.
The method by which we can prevent from the emotional hijack is just a step away from us.

References:
1. Sedlmeier P et al. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull, Nov, 138(6): 1139-71.
2. Fox KC et al (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systemic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, Jun;4:48-73.
3. Megan S.Wheeler., Diane B. Arnkoof., Carol R.Glass.(2017). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness: How Mindfulness Alters the Brain and Facilitates Emotion Regulation. Mindfulness Volume 8, Issue 6, pp 1471-1487.
4. Sara W. Lazar et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. (2005). Neuro report Nov 28: 16(17):1893-1897.
5. Judson A.Brewer., Hani M.Elwafi., Jake H. Davis. (2014). Craving to Quit: psychological models and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness training as treatment for addictions. Psychol Addict Behav. Jun 27(2);366-379.
6. Matthew D. Lieberman et al (2007). Putting Feelingd Into Words. Psychological Science. Vol 18, Number 5, 421-428.

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