Mindfulness meditation, an exercise of the brain, can induce changes not just in the function of the brain but also its structure, banishing negative thoughts, experts say.
Throughout life, even shortly before death, the brain can re itself, responding to a person’s experiences. This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity.
“We now have evidence that engaging in pure mental training can induce changes not just in the function of the brain, but in the brain’s structure itself,” said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The brain’s plasticity does change over time, Davidson pointed out. For instance, young children have an easier time learning a second language or a musical instrument, he was quoted as saying by LiveScience.
In a discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences, experts focused on a particular type of exercise: the practice of mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn, a clinical mindfulness expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defined as awareness.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention in the present moment, nonjudgmentally,” Kabat-Zinn said.
There are many doors into mindfulness, said Kabat-Zinn. He gave two examples: A person can practice mindfulness by focusing on something, such as his or her own breath, and bringing his or her attention back to the breath when it begins to wander.
It is also possible to practice awareness without choosing a particular object upon which to focus; however, “that turns out to be quite a challenging thing to do,” he said.
Cultivating mindfulness can help break harmful cycles, such as those that accompany depression, in which the mind continues to repeat the same negative thoughts.
Work in Davidson’s lab indicates a connection between meditation and resilience. A response to stress becomes problematic when someone perseverates, or has an emotional reaction long after the problem has ended.
In the brain, this shows up as the prolonged activation of a region known as the amygdala.
Mindfulness can increase the speed of recovery in the amygdala, and the more hours of formal practice people have, the faster their amygdalas recover, the data indicate, Davidson said.