Almost every guide to happiness whether it’s a self-help book or an online checklist will extol the numerous benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Being acutely aware of the present moment and yet remaining detached is hailed as the key to a satisfying and fulfilling life. If you’ve already mastered the art of being mindful and in control of your emotions, you’ve already won more than half the battle and you’re on your way to incredible success. And now, even science has proved that being mindful actually changes the way our brains react to particular emotions, especially sadness.
In an early study, led by Norman Farb and his colleagues, the participants were asked several questions about their personal traits, such as if they felt foolish, intelligent, trustworthy, responsible and so on, all the while being scanned by an MRI machine. What they found out was that such interrogation activated either the “narrative or analytic” mode of the brain which deals with questions like is it a good or bad thing?, What does this reveal about my personality?, or the “experiential/concrete” mode that grapples with questions like, what is happening in this moment and the next? What am I currently acutely aware of?
After training the participants, the researchers began to study how mindful training was related to each of these two modes. The participants were tested twice-once before beginning an MBSR program and again after its completion. The results were startling.
Mindfulness leads to increase in activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex
Those who practised mindfulness displayed a decrease in the medial prefrontal cortex region of the brain which is associated it with analytical thinking and self-evaluation. Instead there was an increase in activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, especially the insula region of the brain which is linked to direct, in-the-moment sensory experiences.
In other words, being mindful literally stops you from thinking too much and over-reacting. Just as there is a shift of activity in the brain from one region to another, there is an equal shift in thinking. Instead of blaming yourself or others, you learn to concentrate on the present moment and make the most out of it.
They were less likely to be caught up in the sadness than the other group
Farb and his colleagues then played sad and neutral film clips to the participants. Once again, the results were similar. The sad film clips were overall associated with greater medial prefrontal cortex activation and with regions linked to self-appraisal and less activity in the region associated with awareness in the present moment.
However, the interesting fact was those who had undergone the mindfulness training course had higher activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex region. In other words, they were less likely to be caught up in the sadness than the other group. Once again, being mindful affords greater self-control and shift of attention to what is really important and not drown in one’s emotions.
How to be Mindful in Your Daily Life
1. Be mindful the moment you wake up. Sit in silence, relishing the present moment and being grateful for being so gloriously alive. Don’t let your phone or other noises distract you.
2. Practise for short periods at first. Try 5 minutes at first, then increase it to 10 and 20 and so on.
3. Use prompts to remind yourself to be mindful. Have a personal cue: be it the morning coffee, or a certain activity, or a reminder on your phone, or even a particular symbol to remind yourself to practise mindfulness throughout the day.
If you can opt for a mindfulness training course, by all means go for it, but even if you can’t, it’s not the end of the world. Incorporate these valuable habits in your daily routine and watch your life change for the better in front of your eyes!
Featured photo credit: Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, Oxford University via brainfacts.org