Breathe in. Breathe out. Notice the rise and fall of your chest. Let your thoughts slip away.
If you’ve ever practised meditation—be it at a studio or through an app—you’ll be familiar with these incantations. They’re repeated to help you to focus and to be centred but if you’re anything like me, they’re a struggle to execute.
I start to feel my limbs getting heavy, I become aware of a breeze between my feet and then I can’t stop thinking about an email I haven’t responded to, what I’m going to cook for dinner or the fact that I’ve run out of dishwashing liquid and I’ll have to go to the shops.
I always thought meditation was about switching off—something I couldn’t seem to do. About training your brain to rid itself of thoughts but according to clinical psychologist, Dr Richard Chambers, this is not the case.
“It is not necessary (nor possible, for that matter) to rid the mind of thoughts. The brain is an organ and its function is to think, and there is no way to stop this. There is no particular state to be achieved [during meditation] other than being fully present. Mindfulness helps us engage fully with the present moment, notice when our attention wanders off, and gently return it to the present once again. So we keep having thoughts but don’t get lost in them.”
– Dr Richard Chambers
In fact, it’s the activity that goes on within the brain during meditation that makes it so effective in real life. We spoke to Dr Richard Chambers—who also happens to be one of the developers of Smiling Mind and an internationally-recognised mindfulness expert—to find out more.
What actually is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is living in the now. It is essentially about being more aware and awake in every moment of your life. It involves bringing an attitude of curiosity, acceptance and friendliness to whatever is experienced, rather than habitual patterns of judgment and criticism.”
However, Chambers admits, for most of us, we spend the majority of our time in ‘default mode’.
“Research shows that when we are not deliberately paying attention to something, our brain clicks off into default mode. This is a type of attention characterised by mental chatter, mind wandering, operating on ‘automatic pilot’, dwelling on the past and worrying about the future, judgment and criticism.” Sound familiar?
Why is default mode problematic?
“Default mode has been found to activate specific areas of the brain, mostly in the temporal and parietal lobes, along with the hippocampus and certain prefrontal areas. The amygdala (the brain’s “fear centre”) also becomes overactivated. This activation pattern tends to result in experiencing the world through thoughts and ideas, rather than directly through the senses and is increasingly being linked to mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD and even autism and schizophrenia. It has also been associated with reduced cognitive functioning and therefore impaired academic and occupational functioning as well as difficulty understanding others and communicating effectively.
In contrast, when we pay deliberate attention to what we are doing, we engage different parts of the brain (primarily prefrontal regions such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex). We experience things directly, through the senses, and avoid getting caught up in worrying, dwelling, judging and fight/flight reactivity. We all experience this way of being at times—while exercising, playing music, being in nature, engaging in hobbies and spending time with loved ones, for instance. In these moments, we are effortlessly in the present, fully engaged in the senses and fully aware.”
But how does this work?
“The brain is comprised of 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) arranged in a circuit with around 100 trillion connections.
When we experience something for the first time, the dendrites of neurons form connections with the dendrites of other neurons, and a neural pathway is formed. For instance, when people start playing piano, new connections are formed in their brain. And if they experience playing piano a number of times—that is, practise playing—the connections will get stronger and stronger. As well as new connections being formed, the brain starts growing entirely new neurons to accommodate the new learning. This is known as ‘neuroplasticity’ (a combination of ‘neuron’ and plasticity, which means the ability to be moulded—think of plasticine). As we continue practising, the neurons must move farther apart to accommodate these new connections, and the brain literally grows. In this way, it is just like a muscle, and practice of any sort is like a workout.
What is even more interesting is that mental practice creates these changes. A famous experiment once got a group of people to practise piano for an hour a day for five days and then put these people in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) ‘brain scanner’ at the end. As might be expected, areas of the brain associated with fine motor movement and distinguishing different sounds were thicker, with more neurons and connections, compared to before the period of practice. Perhaps even more interesting, there was a second group of people who spent an hour a day for the five days imagining themselves playing piano, without ever actually touching a keyboard. And at the end of the five days, when this second group was put in the MRI, what do you think the researchers found? The same areas of the brain that had grown in the first group had increased in the second group! In fact, there was no difference between the groups. This demonstrated that mental rehearsal, as well as actual physical practice, creates neuroplastic changes in the brain.
This is significant because we ‘practise’ default mode most of the time. As outlined above, when we are not paying attention to something, we click off into mind-wandering and automatic pilot. This then gets hardwired into the brain, and we become even more likely to be in this mode. However, when we practise mindfulness (i.e. pay attention to what we are doing and experiencing), different parts of the brain are activated. These areas then become stronger and thicker, and we start experiencing these patterns of activation spontaneously. This is why people who practise mindfulness meditation find that they naturally start catching themselves in default mode throughout the day. And any time we catch ourselves in default mode we are no longer in default mode in that moment. At the same time, because of the use-it-or-lose-it nature of neuroplasticity, the parts of the brain associated with default mode become weaker and eventually start to disappear. In this way, practising mindfulness literally changes our brains.”
If you want to learn more from Dr Richard Chambers, try his four-week mindfulness course.