This is the first of three articles looking at the practice of mindfulness based on the work of psychologist and best-selling author Rick Hanson in his book (co-authored with Richard Mendius) “The Buddha’s Brain”. This article considers the question: does mindfulness really work?
Rick is keen to stress that what we now know about mindfulness is very much rooted in what we have learned from neuroscience, combined with insights from thousands of years of contemplative practice from the world’s greatest religions. He links Buddhist teachings on the causes of suffering (painful situations cannot be avoided but our emotional responses to them can) to the deep programming in our brains caused by ancestral survival strategies. This hardwiring helped us survive constant life-threatening situations but is based on erroneous beliefs that we are separate, that it is possible to stabilise an ever changing world, that we can avoid situations that create pain and pursue only those that give us pleasure. None of these beliefs are true or can be attained. Their inherent contradictions cause us to live with an underlying feeling of anxiety taking us away from our true ground of being and causing much physical and psychological ill-health.
What exactly does Mindfulness do to the brain?
Science is now revealing how our flow of thoughts actually sculps our brain. This means that by learning how to “train our brains” we can start to be able to activate brain states of calm, joy and compassion instead of worry, sadness and anger.
Rick uses neuroscience to underpin the tools he offers in his book, only choosing “methods that have a plausible scientific explanation for how they light up neural networks of contentment, kindness and peace.” We can find out exactly how and why taking five deep inhalations and exhalations calms us down, rather than taking his word for it!
So what exactly have we learned from neuroscience about how our brain works? First of all that as brain circuits get used, they strengthen their connections; “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Your experience matters, leaving an enduring trace behind.
- It triggers patterns of neural pulsing that produce relaxed alertness
- It activates positive emotion circuits, building resilience and resistance to depression
- It increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that supports mood, sleep, and digestion
- It thickens the anterior cingulate, strengthening attention and self-observation
- It thickens the insula, strengthening internal sensing and empathy for others
- It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) for relaxed well-being
- It strengthens the immune system, improve cardiovascular health, dampen chronic pain
My next blog will go into more detail about some of the practices Rick Hanson describes in the book.
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If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness and how it might help you, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
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Reference: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius (2009) New Harbinger Publications.
For more information about the brain go to Rick’s website: http://www.rickhanson.net/the-science-of-positive-brain-change/