The Mindful Brain

Dec 8, 2022

by Morgan Eugenio

The practice of mindfulness can transform us from a rote state to an intentional state. Like a caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly, mindfulness can help transform you into a happier and healthier version of yourself. Yet, what is mindfulness doing in the brain to get us to this point of metamorphosis?

 

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness practice starts off every group and in fact is the first module taught in DBT. The core mindfulness skills are critical in helping us reduce reactivity, increase happiness, reduce suffering, and are essential tools for building a life worth living.

 

Many of us think of meditation when we think of the word mindfulness. We often use these words interchangeably, and while they are related, they are not the same. Meditation is a practice that uses mindfulness techniques to focus the mind for a specific period of time with the intention of limiting the impact of distracting and wandering thoughts. The DBT Core Mindfulness skills help us develop intentional awareness of the here and now without judgment of the present moment. If you have ever been in the “flow” while completing a task or engaging in an activity, you have experienced being mindful.

 

Engaging in a mindfulness practice can result in many desired “side effects.” It can decrease suffering, increase happiness, increase self-awareness, and help to regulate what we feel and what we do. Researchers have found that people who participated in mindfulness-based interventions experienced changes to brain structures fundamental to emotion regulation. These structures include the amygdala, the insula, and the prefrontal cortex (1). Here’s what happens for each of them when mindfulness begins to take root:

 

Amygdala:

As mentioned in the last blog post, individuals who participate in DBT experience DECREASED activation of the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, partly due to the impact of mindfulness. Additionally, those individuals have much less intense reactions to distressing emotions when they occur (2).

 

Prefrontal cortex (PFC):

Mindfulness INCREASES activation in the prefrontal and insular cortex (1). The PFC is our brain’s control center for planning, decision-making, problem-solving, emotion regulation (!), and other higher brain functions. Another role of the PFC is to step in with the amygdala, preventing it from turning up distressing emotions when they occur (3).

 

Insula or Insular cortex:

The insula’s primary involvement in our brain is to process the emotions that are unique to the human experience. One of the main jobs of the insula is to experience and perceive the state of our bodies at any one time (4). This is important for mindfulness practice, as an essential component of it is being able to notice our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

 

If mindfulness sounds like a daunting practice to undertake, know that you are not alone. It takes time and practice for these brain regions to come online and stay online. With practice over time, we become able to build up the mindfulness “muscles” in our brains, much like how weight training and flexing strengthen our muscle tone. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, why not start your practice today?

 

 

[1] Wheeler, M. S., Arnkoff, D. B., & Glass, C. R. (2017). The neuroscience of mindfulness: How mindfulness alters the brain and facilitates emotion regulation. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1471–1487. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0742-x

 

[2] Iskric A, Barkley-Levenson E. Neural Changes in Borderline Personality Disorder After Dialectical Behavior Therapy-A Review. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Dec 17;12:772081. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.772081. PMID: 34975574; PMCID: PMC8718753.

 

[3] Dixon ML, Thiruchselvam R, Todd R, Christoff K. Emotion and the prefrontal cortex: An integrative review. Psychol Bull. 2017 Oct;143(10):1033-1081. doi: 10.1037/bul0000096. Epub 2017 Jun 15. PMID: 28616997.

 

[4] Haase L, Thom NJ, Shukla A, Davenport PW, Simmons AN, Stanley EA, Paulus MP, Johnson DC. Mindfulness-based training attenuates insula response to an aversive interoceptive challenge. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Jan;11(1):182-90. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu042. Epub 2014 Apr 8. PMID: 24714209; PMCID: PMC4692309.