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The life-changing neuroscience of mindfulness

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Rooted in ancient history, mindfulness is the buzzword of the past decade. But is there actually any real science?

The human brain is made up of 80 to 100 billion neurons, each of which can form thousands of connections with other neurons, leading to a complex network of synapses that enables brain cells to communicate. Despite this, the brain is one of the greatest mysteries of our time; with modern neuroscience hypothesising, we are only at the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past decade, more and more focus has shifted towards the life-changing effects of wellness and more specifically mindfulness. Considering neuroscience is still in its infant years, is it outlandish to consider that we hold the power to change our brain chemistry through the simple act of meditating?

Meditation and mindfulness holds a certain air of scepticism, so let's deep dive into emerging neuroscientific research.

Meditation and the brain:

Dr Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School re-focused her research following the attendance of multiple meditation classes. She personally felt happier, calmer, and more compassionate leading her to refocus her own research on the effects of meditation on the brain's structure. Lazar’s first study used MRI to assess the cortical thickness of participants with a consistent meditation practice. She found that long-term mediators (40-50 years old) had the same amount of grey matter within their cortex as 20-30-year-olds.

Lazar’s results suggested that a consistent meditation practice could both slow down and prevent age-related thinning within the frontal cortex.

For Lazar’s second study, she wanted to observe the effects of mindfulness on a participation group that had never meditated before. She set them the task of following a mindfulness activity (such as the ones suggested below) for 30-40 minutes for 8 weeks.

The results were staggering, with participants demonstrating a brain volume increase across four distinct regions.

The most relevant areas are the hippocampus and temporoparietal junction- two areas specifically associated with the regulation of emotions, storage of memories, learning, empathy and compassion. Interestingly the amygdala is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response and was found to decrease in volume, with participants demonstrating lower levels of stress.

What’s interesting from Lazar’s extensive research is that mindfulness appears to be intrinsically linked to neuroplasticity- a phenomenon in which the grey matter can shrink and thicken in response to everyday behaviours. More and more research is now mounting to indicate that well-being is not only a skill but actually something cultivated through simple brain exercises with both short and long-term positive effects.

Shifting the ideology of the brain towards a malleable organ that can change daily, not only makes mindfulness advantageous but a necessity for our own health.

Below are some examples of different mindfulness techniques you can incorporate into your everyday life. Use the suggested practices as a guide to getting started, ultimately the key to a consistent mindfulness practice is finding your own style that works for you.

Mindfulness techniques you can do right now:

Now we have established the importance of a consistent mindfulness practice, let's look at some easy-to-implement everyday techniques you can start today.

Mindfulness activities

Building a mindfulness daily routine is a lot less daunting than you think. No, you don’t need to dedicate hours of your time or get up at 5am, instead, simply be more present in your day-to-day activities. This means instead of distracting yourself with Netflix, YouTube, or another podcast, spend more time being receptive to both your body and the surrounding environment.

Examples of building a mindfulness routine include:

  • Mindful shower – Instead of falling into an autopilot state focusing on the stressors of the day ahead, use your morning shower as a time to be more mindful. Notice how the water feels on your skin, how the soap smells, and the sound of the toothbrush against your teeth. Just simply observe without judgment bringing your focus back to the present moment when your brain inevitably wanders.

  • Mindful breakfast/lunch/dinner – Eating and drinking are everyday practices that we often overlook as meditative moments. We grab something ‘to go’ for breakfast, work through lunch, and couple dinner with Netflix. We are often too busy to realise we are passing up a moment intended for us to slow down. Instead, make a conscious effort to study the colour of your food, appreciate the smell as it enters your mouth and how the taste develops while you are chewing- take your time and breathe slowly.

  • Mindful exercise- Coupling mindfulness with exercise is the ultimate mindfulness activity, as exercise forces us to focus more on the breath and how our body is moving. Begin your exercise with a few deep breaths focusing on how your body feels as you move through the movement. Next, observe how your feet are hitting the pavement and which muscle groups are being activated. Make sure your breath is as relaxed as it can be and make sure you leave your earbuds at home- silence will maximise your focus.

Daily check-in

As high-performing humans, it is not second nature for us to check in with our bodies throughout the working day. Instead, we bark orders expecting it to work like a machine and when it doesn’t well that’s what coffee is for, right? You will be amazed at what you find out about your body if you just take the time to listen. Having intervals throughout your day to assess your body and mind can help you catch poor habits and prevent burnout. These small check-ins although seemingly very simple allow you to refocus your mind and body; enhancing productive performance, while doubling as a mindfulness activity!

Follow the script below:
  1. Take three deep breaths in through your nose, and out through your mouth

  2. What is one word to describe how you are feeling overall within your body?

  3. Do you notice any tension within your head? Are you clenching your jaw?

  4. Do you notice any tension within your shoulder and neck area? Can you drop your shoulders lower?

  5. Notice how you are seated, feeling the weight of your body on the chair and floor.

  6. How is your posture? Are you hunched over? Are your legs crossed? Can you change your position to better facilitate your posture?

  7. Notice your stomach area, is it tense or relaxed? Do you feel hungry, or maybe thirsty?

  8. Notice your feet on the floor and any sensations your feet are feeling.

  9. When was the last time you stood up and walked around?

  10. Take three deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.

If you would like an audio body scan meditation check out this link.

Deep Breathing

Coupling breathing activities with a moment of stillness is a great form of meditation. It gives the mind something to focus on preventing it from wandering and actives your parasympathetic nervous system. This naturally takes our body away from the overstimulated sympathetic nervous system it is used to and provides a moment of calm. Here are some breathing techniques to try, they are discrete, quick and easy to perform. Ideally, try to perform these techniques in a quiet environment where you will not be disturbed.

Box Breathe

This is also known as the Navy Seal method as it is used by highly trained military individuals to steel their nerves and focus before entering high-pressure situations. Box breathing is great to calm the nerves, helps with sleep and even enhances focus. Before beginning close your eyes and hold your belly, this helps maintain focus.

How box breathes works:

1. Inhale for x4 counts

2. Hold for x4 counts

3. Exhale for x4 counts

4. Hold the exhale for x4 counts

If you would like a guided audio demonstration of box breathe click the link.

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The 4-7-8 method

The 4-7-8 breathing method has been found to directly help activate your parasympathetic nervous system and is backed by research. A study based in Thailand observed the immediate effects of the 4-7-8 method in 43 young healthy adults; the participant's heart rate and blood pressure immediately lowered following the practice.

How the 4-7-8 breathe works:

  1. Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound – keeping your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper teeth

  2. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to a count of x4

  3. Hold your breath for x7 counts

  4. Exhale through your mouth making a whoosh sound for a count of x8

  5. Repeat the process three more times for a total of 4 sets

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Hope you have found this article useful and feel motivated to implement mindfulness into your daily life, in whatever format that might be for you. We believe wellness is extremely important here at Hippocratix, for more wellness tips and information check out our blog page.




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