CEUnits Blog

Change Your Mind, Change Your Life: Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

November 14th, 2021

By Libby Waite.

The shape of your mind is defined by what you think at every moment. Your everyday thoughts are crucial in determining the structure of your brain and your behaviors. Studies with mindfulness meditators have shown greater brain density in areas dedicated to attention, learning, and compassion. This is the effect of sustained mindfulness. What you practice grows stronger.

When Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science

Mindfulness is not a buzzword. It’s the evolution of centuries-old wisdom. A tool for self-development and meaning-making that sits at the heart of Buddhist teachings. Today, mindfulness has been adopted by therapeutic modalities, corporate think tanks, and wellness apps. This reflects a growing recognition of its potency for change. But how, and why, does mindfulness work?

Developments in fMRI have shown that every time we learn something new, we change the structure of our brains. This is neuroplasticity. When we engage in a new task or learn new information, there are changes in the chemical reactions between neurons in our brain, helping us to store things in our short-term memory. But, if we practice mindfulness whilst we learn, we change the physical connections between the neurons. This alters the structure of the brain and enables us to retain information in our long-term memory. Mindfulness develops our capacity to learn, grow, and transform.

Being Mindful of the Moment, in the Moment

Mindfulness involves drawing on the present moment to reflect on the true nature of things. It means stepping back from obsessing about past events or worrying about future problems.

As meditators practice cultivating awareness, gratitude, and compassion, they grow their brain capacity. New neuronal pathways connect different parts of the brain. This is how mindfulness and neuroplasticity work; it’s not only what we pay attention to, but how we pay attention.

Expanding our Capacity for Growth

When we are stressed, overworked, and exhausted, our nervous systems move into a space of hyperarousal. This increases the grey matter in the amygdala and stimulates the release of norepinephrine and cortisol. These flood our system and shut our learning centers down as we move into survival pathways. Our potential for neuroplasticity and self-development becomes limited.

When we practice mindfulness, the opposite happens. The grey matter in the amygdala decreases. We increase our capacity in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. These areas of the brain relate to emotional regulation, decision-making, and memory. Dopamine releases into the system and facilitates learning. So, when we practice mindfulness, we are not only experiencing more peace in that moment. We are also expanding our capacity to return to this peaceful state again and again, as we create new neuronal pathways.

Mindfulness is recognizing these changes in our state. When we become aware of all the stages of our moment-by-moment experience, we better understand how to regulate our systems. Direct experience of our mental habits through mindful tracking helps us become aware of our experience before we act.

How to Cultivate Meaningful Change

If you want to create new pathways for growth, then ask yourself: what will you fill your mind with? What do you want to grow? Mindfulness not only changes the shape of our brains. It changes who we are and how we move through the world. It’s an essential tool for therapists, clinicians, and social workers who want to help their clients make meaningful changes to their lives.


About the author

Libby Waite is a research psychologist specializing in the intersection of Western Psychotherapy and Eastern Spirituality. She is a bodyworker and yoga therapist who combines Body-Mind Centering, Somatics, and Jungian psychology. Her work has been published in the International Journal of Jungian Studies.

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