Nine Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness can bring your brain into an integrated state of harmony, balancing chaos on the one hand and rigidity on the other. This scientific wisdom is brought to you by neuroscientist Dan Siegel, author of several important books, including the Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and his latest, The Mindful Therapist. The middle prefrontal cortex, located behind your forehead and part of the newest part of the brain evolution-wise, (it's known as the “rational brain” in contrast to the “emotional brain” that is older evolutionarily) is critical to the following nine functions:
Downregulation of fear
Each of these functions is positively affected by meditation. When you meditate, your prefrontal cortex will actually change. It will become thicker in places, indicating new neural connections and perhaps even new neurons. It will be more efficient and more integrated.
Bodily regulation is accomplished by regulating arousal and relaxation through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (think of the gas pedal and a brake in a car). If you are overly stressed or anxious, your sympathetic nervous system is overly active — think of a lead foot on the gas pedal — the car lurches forward and uses a lot of gas. Mindfulness helps to regulate the sympathetic nervous system, making it less reactive (no more lead foot), and helps you to drive the car more slowly. This cuts down on wear and tear on your body and reduces the risk for long-term health problems.
Attunement is being connected to others, or being “in tune.” By being mindful you can better connect to others because you are more present and less preoccupied with your own story. Attunement sows the seeds of compassion. Attunement provides the optimal environment for babies to develop in; healthy development happens when babies are attuned with their caregivers.
Emotional balance refers to how you engage with experiences. It balances apathy on the one hand and feeling overwhelmed on the other. Like bodily regulation, it's a Goldilocks phenomenon, not too much and not too little. This is the optimal place for neural integration. Like bodily regulation, this helps you to be more nuanced and less clumsy in your emotional responses. This will come in handy in your relationships and dealing with the day-to-day frustrations of life.
Response flexibility refers to the pause that can develop between a stimulus and response. It aims at the impulsive reactions that often occur in response to a stimulus. This pause comes from mindful awareness and can help you to be less impulsive and less destructive with what you say and do.
Downregulation of Fear
This important feature is your ability to adjust the signals from the emotional brain that can often overwhelm you. The emotional brain, which is responsible for emotions like fear and anger, has the job of keeping you safe. It does so by figuring out what you should be paying attention to. It is prone to making mistakes that err on the side of caution: “Is that a snake or a stick? Let's assume it's a snake and let's get the hell out of here.”
That kind of mistake is less costly than guessing wrong. It takes longer to recover from a snakebite than to catch your breath for running away for no good reason. To be more accurate in detecting what should really get your precious attention resources, the prefrontal cortex (the rational brain) needs to have more nerve fibers going from the rational brain to the emotional brain to tell it, “Hey, it's a false alarm.” This is accomplished through the development of inhibitory nerve fibers that go from the middle prefrontal cortex to structures like the amygdala in the emotional brain (limbic system). Mindfulness practice can help to develop these nerve fibers.
Insight refers to what Siegel calls mental time travel or what you might call imagination. Mindfulness can help you to refine this capacity in the service of living skillfully rather than being subjected to out-of-control worry, regret, and self-criticism. If you are not using your imagination for these destructive purposes it will be free to be creative, and that would be a much better thing to do with your attention.
Empathy, or what Siegel calls “mindsight,” refers to the ability to take the perspective of the other. Obviously, this is connected to compassion and once again hinges upon the ability to transcend your own selfpreoccupied stories to meet the person you are with where they are. While some people are naturally more empathic than others, you are not stuck where you are. As with all of these features, empathy is a trainable skill. The more you meditate, the more empathic you can become.
Morality is also a function of the middle prefrontal cortex and includes not just your ability to be moral in public settings but also in private. As you already know, morality or ethics is a cornerstone of Buddhist teaching and practice, so it may not be a surprise to find morality showing up on this list too. Buddhist meditation practice helps you to discern skillful from unskillful actions in all domains. In the context of morality, this may require inhibiting an impulse, or inserting a pause before you say something.
Intuition is the capacity to access the wisdom of the body by monitoring your bodily sensations. For example, a brain structure called the insula has a map of the interior body, and studies have found the insula gets thicker with meditation practice. The more you meditate, the more aware you will be of your body. This awareness can help you to cope with whatever the body is experiencing, whether that is pain, anxiety, or any discomfort whatsoever.
Before he took an interest in mindfulness, Siegel came up with the same list of brain function as mindfulness researchers had compiled independently. And it's not just brain researchers; this list has been striven for in many spiritual traditions since ancient times. When you recognize the plasticity of the brain, you can understand why you respond in certain situations the way that you do. Your previous conditioning will have you react in sometimes-harmful ways. But it is the fault of conditioning. However, at the same time, it is your responsibility (and potential) to change these conditionings through mindfulness and meditation. The middle prefrontal cortex develops optimally in an interpersonally attuned environment during infancy. Mindfulness provides the possibility of self-attunement to develop these same brain areas. So sit down and change your brain! (For more information visit:
Other Brain Benefits
One study found that people who had participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation class had measurable shifts in the way their brains handled emotions, shifting their emotional set-point towards more positive feelings. This study also found a boost in their immune systems (chronic stress can reduce immune functioning).
Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to reduce the recurrence of major depression in patients who have had multiple episodes of depression. Mindfulness can also help with anxiety disorders including posttraumatic stress disorder. There is also some evidence suggesting that mindfulness meditation discourages self-destructive behavior in response to stress by encouraging acceptance rather than avoidance of negative emotions such as sorrow, guilt, or loneliness. This might seem backwards, but acceptance is the key and is at the core of the Buddha's teaching. When you accept something, you are in clear contact with reality. It doesn't mean that you like sorrow or want to be lonely, but you accept the fact that you are. Then a space opens up where you can experience these emotions as they are without having to change them into something else. This gives you freedom and can help to prevent covering these feelings over with potentially self-destructive behaviors such as smoking, eating, and drinking.