Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

Christina Congleton, Brittany K. Holzel, and Sara W. Lazar posted this article on LinkedIn (January 08, 2015)
Recent research provides strong evidence that practicing non-judgemental, present-moment awareness (a.k.a. Mindfulness) changes the brain, and it does so in ways that anyone working in today’s complex business environment, and certainly every leader, should know about.
Although research identified at least 8 different regions that are affected by mindfulness, this research focused on two that they believe to be of particular interest to business professionals.
The first is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure located deep inside the forehead, behind the brain’s frontal lobe. The ACC is associated with self-regulation, meaning the ability to purposely direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly. Those with damage to the ACC show impulsivity & unchecked aggression and do poorly on tests of mental flexibility, and hold ineffective problem-solving strategies. Meditators, on the other hand, demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators. In addition to self-regulation, the ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making.
The second brain region we want to highlight is the hippocampus, a region that showed increased amounts of gray matter in the brains of our 2011 mindfulness program participants. This part of the limbic system is associated with emotion and memory. It is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol and studies have shown that it can be damaged by chronic stress. Indeed, people with stress-related disorders like depression and PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus. All of this points to the importance of this brain area in resilience – another key skill in the current high-demand business & educational world.
Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self.
Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have”: a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress. When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.

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