A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 3. How Our Brains Work and the Science behind Mindfulness
You may be thinking (though how would I know?) that it’s all very well me going on about living in the present. I can hear you now: ‘I haven’t got time, I have emails to answer, mouths to feed … I’ll get to the happiness stuff later.’ I completely see your point. I, too, am in a rush, trying to finish this book to deadline and not really thinking about happiness, just on how screwed I’ll be if I don’t hand the book in. (Obviously, I did; otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.)
But there are many other benefits of mindfulness besides visiting the present. Current research shows that, with the practice of mindfulness, we can change the inner landscape of our brains to improve, among other things, the immune system, and resistance to depression, and to lower the risk of heart disease and enhance well-being. The research shows that it also gains positive results in helping us manage our feelings and be able to take charge.
Everyone assumes that we’re pre-packaged, set in stone at birth. Not so … if you listen to neuroscientists (and why wouldn’t you?), they will say that the brain is plastic, changing with every encounter, experience and thought. Here’s what I don’t understand: if something called neuroplasticity is a hard, cold fact, why haven’t we, the masses, heard much about it? Why are we left sitting here with a measly fourteen shades of grey, when, if we’re talking about the brain, there are a trillion possible shades.
OUR BRAINS CAN BE TRAINED TO CHANGE FOR THE BETTER! Why isn’t this in the headlines of every newspaper in the land and on breakfast TV? We can’t even say now that we’re stuck with the genes we were given, because recently someone has come up with something called epigenetics, a science that tells us that our genes, too, can be revamped by life experiences and environmental factors. So if you inherit some lousy genes, they don’t necessarily switch on; it’s like carrying a grenade throughout your life without the pin ever being pulled.
I became obsessed with neuroscience because it made me feel less alone when I realized that we all have pretty much the same equipment under our scalps. We all share the same glitches – I realize now that they aren’t my fault, they’re just a matter of evolution. Now when someone gives me grief, I’m aware that it might not have anything to do with me but rather that some part of their brain has flipped its lid and I just happen to be in the firing line. The fact that the brain is malleable throughout life means it’s not too late for me to break some of my uglier habits of thinking. With practice, I’ll be able to self-regulate, reconfigure my neural wiring and sharpen my attentional focus – just like it says on the tin.
I’m tempted to rename MBCT ‘Mind Fitness’; it sounds less vegetarian. Also, it’s cheaper than any gym you’ll ever join, because the equipment is all in your head. The more you understand how the brain works and, using the evidence of brain imaging and MRI studies, see how much it can change, the easier it becomes to see the point of sitting down and practising. So here’s a little guide to what’s inside your head. Before I start, I need to say that neuroscience is the most complex subject on this planet and all the universes put together. I was listening to Brian Cox and a famous neuroscientist talking on the radio, and after Brian did one of his fluty monologues about the cosmos, the neuroscientist said, ‘Well, it’s not rocket science. Neuroscience is much more complex.’
I asked for advice on this chapter from a very well-known neuroscientist, Professor Oliver Turnbull: neuropsychologist, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) of the School of Psychology at Bangor University and author of over 150 neuroscience publications. To help me, he gave me a few research papers to read. I can honestly say, Oliver, I didn’t understand one word.
So if I said I was simplifying neuroscience here, that would be a serious understatement; it would be like Peppa Pig explaining quantum physics. I’m only going to discuss the regions, circuits and functions of the brain that are associated with self-regulation and attentional focus. Another reason for my interest is that I think neuroscientists (specifically, their minds) are the sexiest things on earth and writing this gives me an excuse to meet them.
The Three-brain Theory
I’d like to begin with the fact that none of us ever feels as if we’re in our right mind. The reason may well be that we have three brains and, at any moment, we don’t know which one we’re in. Each brain has been shaped by evolution to improve our abilities at many tasks, from swinging on trees to getting a prenuptial. At times, each brain isn’t aware of what the other two are up to.
This triple-decker reflects our evolutionary development from the earliest model (single-celled bacteria) to the latest (George Clooney). Each brain refused to be replaced by the other, each stood its ground, so they’re all just crammed together in a cerebral car crash.
(Many scientists are in debate over this three-brain theory and have been for decades. Each brain isn’t actually independent, they’re linked, in complicated and poorly understood ways, but I’m saying they’re separate to make it easier for you – and me – to follow.)
Here is my drawing. (I drew this myself.)
The Reptilian Brain
Five hundred million years or so ago we began with the oldest part of our brain, known as the reptilian brain, or archipallium (fancy name: you won’t need to remember it). This very archaic area (our brain stem and the layers around and above it) is in charge of the basics: breathing, heart rate, sleep, sex and strong emotion (my type of guy).
The Limbic System
Then, 200 million or so years ago we developed the paleopallium, or limbic, brain, which moved in right on top and around the reptilian model and set up shop. The limbic emotionally translates the deep drives and signals from the older brain, which helps us remember our feelings, who caused them and where we were when we had them. With this later brain on the block, we also began to care for our young. Before that, we just squeezed ’em out and skedaddled.
About three and a half million years ago, we (Homo sapiens) had a growth spurt, mostly in the cerebral hemispheres. This new, giant brain was called the neo-mammalian brain, or the neocortex; it’s the big-boy brain, in charge of problem solving, self-regulation, insight, impulse control, attention, empathy … and, amazingly, it allows us to think about thinking.
Basically, the raw emotion shoots up from the brain stem, the limbic registers the emotions, analyses and remembers them, then the neocortex evaluates them and decides what to do next.
All Three Brains
Imagine these three brains as neighbours. Think of the conversations:
REPTILIAN BRAIN (angry): Want to f**k, grunt, eat, sleep. Duh.
NEOCORTEX: You’re a despicable, repulsive vulgarian. Please try to keep your obscene thoughts to yourself, or I shall call the authorities.
LIMBIC: I’ve had it with you two. I’m trying to take care of the kids, while one of you is out raving and the other one is always criticizing.
Even though we ended up with the squashed-up brains, Mother Nature, as usual, compensates for the screw-ups so, in spite of these three unlikely bedfellows, we’ve been running fairly smoothly up until now. The brain stem has obviously been doing what it’s supposed to, because we’re all still breathing and breeding. The limbic system is functioning just fine because we have hot and cold running emotions and keep our kids, even though they suck us dry. The neocortex is in use because we’re civilized and know how to use a hankie.
You can’t categorize these three brains as good or bad; they’re all useful, depending on the circumstances. Even if you’d like to dump the more primitive two, you can’t, because they’re there for a reason. You’ll need the limbic one when ‘Slasher man’ leaps from a hedge (though if it then warns you to avoid all hedges in future, we have a problem). The reptilian ‘grunt’ brain also has its moments (see porno).
With training, you can start to play these three brains separately as three different notes, rather than slamming down on all three in a discord. The more you practise, the easier it gets to play the separate keys.
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
In the limbic area, there’s a small, almond-shaped cluster of neurons called the amygdala. It’s the emergency button for our fight, flight or freeze response, among other strong emotions. More recent research shows that emotions aren’t restricted to the amygdala but are dispersed throughout other areas across the brain. However, let’s keep it simple for now and say that, millions of years ago, the amygdala emergency button worked like a dream; when there was danger it would help us to ‘man up’ to take on our foe by triggering a series of chemical messengers to activate what is known as our endocrine system (our inbuilt chemistry). The result of what happens is not dissimilar to what Heisenberg did in Breaking Bad when he cooked up the blue crystal meth and then had Jesse distribute it … but in this case it’s not meth, it’s the hormones cortisol and adrenaline (these can be toxic at excessive levels). Jesse (the pituitary gland) then deals these class-A hormones to his idiot sidekick (the adrenal gland), who then sells them to the street dealers (every organ in your body), who then push them to even the tiniest little blood vessels (the street kids). What I’ve just described is actually the workings of your sympathetic nervous system … and also the plot of Breaking Bad.
You’d think ‘sympathetic’ means you’re feeling really sorry for yourself; sending sympathy cards with little crying puppies on the front saying, ‘I’m sooooo saweeey’ to all of your organs. Strangely, this isn’t the case; the sympathetic nervous system, prompted by the amygdala, makes your insides scream bloody murder. Chemicals such as adrenaline increase your heartbeat and your blood pressure. Cortisol suppresses your immune system (to reduce inflammation from potential wounds) and feeds back to the amygdala that there’s an emergency … which starts the whole cycle over again and produces more of these toxic hormones … and so it continues. This is why we get stressed about stress, or anxious about being anxious, and of course feelings introduce thoughts and so rumination begins.
When we’re in the sympathetic nervous system the body starts to shut down in order to save energy and use what’s left to get the hell out of there, stick around and kick ass … or, if you’re a loser, freeze like a rabbit in the headlights just before you turn into roadkill. In those states, your reproductive and digestive systems also close up shop, because sex and snacking are really not necessary in an emergency situation. No one wants to be killed with their pants down, or mid-sandwich.
None of these processes takes place in order to spite you; they’re to give you some mojo, to keep you alive at all costs. However, emotionally, you’re getting even more frightened, because everything in you is in full ‘call to arms’ mode, so the stress keeps pumping, the brain is flooded with cortisol and you’re now like a terrified elephant, rampaging and out of control.
If the sympathetic state persists, the neurons wither and die, especially those in the areas responsible for memory. This is why, when you’re stressed, you can’t remember anything. Your mind goes blank and, on a bad day, you can’t even remember why you’re stressed.
Cortisol weakens the neurons’ ability to connect to each other in the hippocampus, preventing them from growing. With all this neuronal death, it’s no wonder you become trapped in habitual negative thinking, which snowballs into rumination: ‘Everyone hates me. I’m a flop. Why, why, why did I get stuck with being me? Why can’t I be someone else? I can’t be someone else because I’m a flop. Who would want me to be like them? Then they’d be a flop, too …’ This litany of misery can go on for days.
Every thought produces biochemical reactions in the brain, which match a feeling in the body. When you think happy thoughts, the body feels good, thanks to the power of dopamine; you think sad, you feel sad. The brain picks up bodily emotions and translates them into thoughts. It’s like a cat chasing its tail: feelings to thinking, thinking to feelings, feelings to … it’s endless. (In Chapter 5 I’ll discuss how, when you send your focus into the body and keep it there by means of training your attention, you can stop this loop tape. Once your attention is focused on a bodily feeling, the thoughts lose their power.)
The only way to break out of this frenzy of self-loathing is somehow to lower the stress levels so the body can get back to its baseline state, with everything in balance.
When you manage to reduce the level of stress, you shift into your opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers your temperature, your heartbeat and your blood pressure and re-routes energy back into the brain and organs. It signals to your body that there’s nothing to be afraid of: have sex, eat food and come into your right mind. All is forgiven.
The bonus of learning to self-regulate is that you develop the skill to choose which nervous system you want to be in. If you need your high-octane state to give a traffic warden some attitude when they stick a parking ticket on your windshield and you were only one minute late, then go ahead and let that sympathetic nervous system rip. But when the situation is resolved and you want to stop yourself from rehashing the ticket story all day, dumping your anger on your friends and stoking your fury even more, then you can switch to your parasympathetic nervous system.
The problem is that our default state (even when we’re just shooting the breeze or mind-wandering) is the sympathetic nervous system. Our inherent disposition is to think negatively, because unconsciously we’re always on the lookout for trouble, continuously churning over problems, worrying, brooding … Once in a while a wonderful memory will pop up, but then usually we’ll be sad again because it’s over. You’re in palpitations of excitement about your upcoming wedding, and a few seconds later you’re worrying whether you’ve got the right fish forks or … man. This ruminative daydreaming is activated in the self-referential network, where it’s all about ‘me’. There are various regions in this network that are responsible for the many ‘me’s: a narrative self, a conceptual self, a bodily self, a language area (the source of self-talk.) So this is the human condition when left to its own devices: it’s all about me, me, me.
One of the physical areas of the brain that inhibits self-involvement is known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC): the mummy or daddy of the mind, which takes charge when you get too silly or too crazy. It is also involved in the act of deciding, when you have a moral dilemma, which way to go. It’s part of your brain which I imagine as two reins holding back a wild horse that is always on the verge of bolting. Mindfulness strengthens the DLPFC so it becomes easier to pull back your focus, to keep it on the task at hand and not be torn away by irrelevant thoughts.
We need a sense of self for three things: self-reflection, consistency and identity. (It would be terrible if you thought you were Napoleon, as some do; but they’re locked away.) But this sense of self backfires when we start to compare ourselves to other people, as it then creates a sense of inferiority and shame, and low self-esteem.
Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, which shows an image of the living brain and records which regions are active during a mental activity), you can see this happening whenever you intentionally move from scattergun thinking back to the task at hand. Think of this as an ability to move focus from the dictatorial mind to a more democratic way of thinking where you have a choice of which information you want to pay attention to and which to ignore.
If you don’t like the reining-in image, here’s another one I use. I picture someone putting their hands on my head in the region of the DLPFC and cradling it until the turmoil inside settles down. (You don’t need to be Freud to guess that those hands just might symbolize the gentle mommy I never had.) When certain areas of the brain are soothed and the self-talk quietens down it’s because this DLPFC is becoming denser with neural connections and therefore strengthened. There’s recent evidence that, even after only an eight-week course of mindfulness, a substantial increase in these neural connections can be observed in an MRI scanner.
This doesn’t mean that by using those reins or hands you have suppressed the self-talk (you need it to exist), but it means that it’s less intrusive and that you’re in control of its volume. The thoughts are no longer the stars of the show; they’re just actors who can be told when to exit or enter by you, the director.
More on the Brain Terrain
Why am I using all this neuroscientific lingo? Well, I’m a pragmatist. If my boiler is broken, I want to know why. I don’t bring in a healer or a reiki master; I want a plumber in there to tell me what valves do what and why. Same with all these brain regions, zones and circuits: just to know they have a name is reassuring and warms my aorta. (And I get off on the fancy names … forgive me.)
The following are some of the areas in the brain that are affected by the practice of mindfulness.
Grey Matter A substance known as ‘gloop’ holds most of the actual brain cells, and if it increases in density, it means that there’s an increase in connectivity between the neurons. Think of it as a muscle. The more you use a specific region, the thicker the grey matter becomes. If there’s more grey matter, it means more neurons, and their density determines the vitality and strength of your thinking.
Mindfulness promotes the growth of grey matter in many regions of the brain. Here are a few of them:
Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) The more you practise mindfulness, the more grey stuff grows here – so now you’re in your right mind.
Amygdala As the size of the PFC increases, the amygdala shrinks with mindfulness practice. Not only does it shrink; in addition, the functional connections between the amygdala and the PFC are weakened. This allows for less reactivity and more adeptness at paying attention and in concentration.
Insula This area gives you a visceral awareness of your senses, in contrast to you thinking about them. The more you practise mindfulness, the bigger the anterior insula grows, and the reason we want a big, healthy one is because it creates metacognition (the ability to stand back and watch your thoughts and feelings). Each time you focus on a sense (touch, hearing, taste, smell, sight), the insula is activated. The stronger the insula becomes, the easier it is to anchor the mind and quieten it down.
Hippocampus MRI shows that, with mindfulness, there’s an increased concentration of grey matter, as well as structural changes in the hippocampus. The birth of these new neurons improves mental dexterity, flexibility of thinking and memory recall.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) A star in the show as far as self-regulation and paying attention is concerned. It detects when your focus has drifted away from where you want it to be. Whenever you notice that this has happened, this area grows stronger, making it easier for you to switch focus from the thinking mind to the feeling mind. It is the master of being able to hold focus and not be torn away by distractions. It encircles the amygdala, so it can control our distress and divert attention to somewhere else that’s safer. The strengthening of the ACC with regard to attention regulation by the practice of mindfulness could prove promising for those who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and, possibly, bipolar disorder, though there isn’t any specific evidence yet. However, there is evidence of improvement in attention.
Temporo-parietal Junction As mentioned earlier, mindfulness produces a greater sense of bodily awareness when you move your focus into the body. This can be witnessed in brain imaging by the fact that, during mindfulness practice, grey matter can be seen to have increased in an area known as the temporo-parietal junction, which is where you get your sense of bodily self. This is key to helping individuals with borderline personality disorders and is also relevant to people with eating disorders and those suffering addiction.
My illustration of the regions mentioned above – it’s a brain cut in half (don’t try it on yourself).
Parasympathetic Nervous System Mindfulness is associated with increased parasympathetic activity and decreased sympathetic activity, which leads to a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure and breathing rate and less muscle tension.
So, really, what I’ve been yapping on about is that by learning to emotionally regulate ourselves through mindfulness practice, we’re re-routing our more primitive reactions to the higher brain. We can see evidence that the activity of the prefrontal cortex increases and, at the same time, the activity in the amygdala decreases. The opposite of this (less prefrontal and more amygdala activity) results in an increase in the severity of social phobias, and to anxiety.
For evidence of all of the above, among many other research articles you can read, these conclusions can be found in ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work from a Conceptual and Neural Perspective?’, (Britta K. Hölzel et el., in Perspectives on Psychological Sciences 2011 6: 537, at: http://pps.sagepub.com/content/6/6/537).
For those of you who, like me, love a bit of evidence, here comes some more.
The first researcher to report the effect of meditation on brain structure was Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, a researcher in the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital. Using fMRI, she found that the amount of grey matter in the insula increased in those who practised mindfulness.
Lazar also did an experiment in which she obtained highly detailed pictures of the brains of twenty meditators and compared them with images obtained from a control group of twenty non-meditators. The meditators had practised for an average of about nine years, and spent, on average, a little less than an hour a day meditating. All were Westerners living in the United States and working in typical jobs. The non-meditators were local volunteers, matched to the meditators for characteristics like age and gender but with no experience in yoga or meditation.
When the brain images of the two groups were compared, Lazar found that particular areas in the brains of the meditators were significantly thicker than the same areas in non-meditators.
Lazar and her associates also recently reported that the region of the brain most associated with emotional reactivity and fear – the amygdala – has decreased grey-matter density in meditators, who experience less stress. Laboratory testing can measure the ways in which the mind becomes stronger with practice, and the mind demonstrates significant improvements over a relatively brief period of time.
You might have noticed that these findings refer to meditation rather than mindfulness. Though they could be considered similar, meditation is more of an exercise whereas mindfulness is using that exercise to build up the skill of being able to pay attention in the moment, without judgement, in daily life.
And here’s the bit that whets my whistle: Cliff Saron of the University of California looked at the effect of meditation on a molecule involved with the longevity of cells:
The molecule in question was an enzyme called telomerase, which lengthens DNA segments at the ends of chromosomes. The segments ensure the stability of genetic material during cell division. They shorten every time a cell divides, and when their length decreases below a critical threshold the cell stops dividing and gradually enters a state of senescence. Compared with a control group, the meditators who showed the most pronounced reductions in physiological stress also had higher telomerase activity. These findings suggest that mindfulness training might slow processes of cellular ageing among some practitioners.
For me, if I only have a little spare time in my day, the choice between tightening my bum or doing some MBCT to lengthen and improve my life is a no-brainer. (Don’t despair: in my six-week course in Chapter 5, I’ll show you how to get the tight bum at the same time as practising mindfulness. It’s win-win.)
I thought I’d get my own brain scanned to show that we’re all the same under our various faÇades. My areas just happen to be more attractive than most other people’s. Here’s my brain …
Why We Need to Do Something Quick: Diseases Both Physical and Mental
· 90 per cent of people seeking medical care are doing so because of stress-related disorders linked to extreme emotions, rather than actual illnesses
· 40 million workers in the European Union are affected by work-related stress
· The cost of working days lost in Europe as a result of stress is estimated to be more than 20 billion euros
Although short-term stress can benefit the immune system and speed up its responses (for example, healing wounds), chronic stress worsens the impact of infectious diseases and gives you a predisposition to many chronic diseases and other conditions.
· Decreased libido
· Digestive disorders
· Hardening of the arteries
· Heart disease
· Memory loss
· Mental disorders
· Premature ageing
· Specific cancers
· Viral infections
Compared to the damage caused by stress, smoking might actually be less harmful … don’t say I said that, but I did.
The breakdown of the immune system is the culprit behind many of the diseases above, and stress contributes to this by disrupting the interaction between the nervous and the immune systems. The purpose of mindfulness is to lower stress levels by altering our relationship to stress for the better. A large body of research documents the effectiveness of MBCT in the treatment of substance abuse, for eating disorders and chronic pain, to improve immune function and reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels. Not only is MBCT successful in the treatment of disorders, it has positive effects on psychological well-being.
Let me run through some of the consequences of stress in more detail.
Let’s make one thing clear: we’re not just addicted to drugs, sex or alcohol, we can also get addicted to our thoughts and feelings of panic, anxiety and despair. Just to get another hit, we might hunt for people who create those feelings we’re addicted to; we always find the perfect perpetrator. Some people can’t tell if they have a relationship with someone because they like them or just because this person keeps the chemicals they’re addicted to bubbling in their veins. Even humiliation can be addictive.
Whether it’s a recreational drug or an emotional drug, you become addicted when certain chemicals cross the synapses between neurons via certain receptors. These receptors wait for the right chemical to come along then work like keyholes, waiting for the right keys (the chemicals) to click into them. It’s not a one size fits all; only certain chemicals can go through certain receptors, or keyholes. Serotonin can only be taken in by a serotonin receptor. They’re very monogamous, those receptors.
If you start to generate excessive amounts of dopamine, which makes you feel invincible and powerful, you’ll want more. Eventually, those receptors become desensitized through overuse and you won’t get the wallop you used to get. Enter cocaine, which, coincidentally, has a similar key to dopamine, to fit into the perfectly matched dopamine receptor keyhole. If you can’t get your own stash of dopamine, you’ll turn to the next-best thing: recreational drugs. And of course you’ll always need more, as those receptors lose their mojo … such is the bitch of addiction: it doesn’t end until you end it or it ends you.
I, personally, had a penchant for rage. (I still do, but I’m more aware that, when I let it out to play, I get a toxic backlash and this is why, to this day, I have acid reflux.) So I just dream about it now, the old quickening of the heart, the feel of my body turning into The Alien, my teeth bared and snarling. I used to create situations to get yet another hit of that rage, and all of this is still embedded in my brain. I still get up almost every morning and scan for whoever I’m furious at. Who can I call and abuse? Even if it’s a poor, innocent employee of a company that sent me the wrong-sized duvet. (I wanted a queen-size, not a single, for God’s sake.)
I especially love those calls because I can feel the salesperson quivering and trying to stay nice, which enrages me even more. Anger is my fingerprint, but the less I act on it, the less addictively feverish it becomes, like a memory that’s fading. This doesn’t mean I’ve turned beige, I still have the residue of fury up my sleeve, but now I use it only on occasions when my anger is appropriate, as in when someone’s taking my parking space on purpose.
Just as I’ve tried to stop my traffic-warden-attacking habit, you can change the long-term effect of your body’s response to stress by learning to regulate your basic fight, flight and freeze reactions. Stress isn’t always a response to an emergency or a disaster; it builds up from small day-to-day tensions there might be at your workplace, in your home life or your community, and can have long-term physical and mental consequences. Stress levels can also be made worse by a rich diet, by smoking, drinking alcohol … anything that whacks up your cortisol. The way in which a person interprets an event, along with their general state of physical health, is not determined completely by genetic factors but by behavioural and lifestyle choices. In other words, don’t blame your mother for giving you the genes that led to your crack habit.
Type 2 Diabetes
For emergencies (fight or flight), we need to increase the level of glucose in our bloodstream to give us energy, but if the stress lasts too long the body can no longer take in the glucose and the result is diabetes. (Insulin regulates glucose and, when it depletes, the cells starve.)
So the thing that helps us in the short term becomes damaging over time. One bit of chocolate is good, but a chocolate fountain with a straw next to your bed isn’t.
During a period of stress, as I mentioned above, the digestive system shuts down, because you need all your energy for flight or fight and there’s no time to think about lunch. When sugar levels rise over time, insulin, as with diabetes, becomes resistant to glucose and glucose can’t be absorbed. This means that you eventually end up on one of those TV shows where they need to take the roof off your house and have a helicopter airlift you out of your spaghetti-filled bed.
If you’re suffering too much stress, your reproductive system shuts down. During that time, for men, making testosterone and sperm aren’t at the top of their list; when running for their lives, the last thing they need is an erection. And you don’t need science to tell you that, when a woman is stressed, she doesn’t feel like sex. This is because inconveniences such as ovulation, menstruation, growing a foetus and breast-feeding will only slow her down. (There are, however, exceptions to this rule: a woman who, when being chased by a predator, will not run … but slows down and takes time to wax her legs and put on tantalizing underwear; she is not going to flee or fight the predator, she is going to date him.)
One possible connection between stress and the development of a cancer is that stress inhibits the immune system, which, ordinarily, can detect early tumours and fight them.
In the short term, when we’re stressed, our blood pressure and our heart rate increase and we manufacture more glucose to gain some energy. In the long term, the repeated surges of blood pressure and heart rate can create a predisposition to heart disease, and also strokes.
Memory Loss and Age-related Diseases
One sign of ageing is the thinning of the prefrontal cortex. This is slowed down by the growth of grey matter, which promotes longevity and creates a more agile, sharper and more energized way of thinking compared to someone with only a piddly spoonful of grey matter.
Depression and Other Mental Disorders
No one knows for sure how much psychological illness is due to nature and how much to nurture, but, in a nutshell, if you have the genes for depression and have a great life, they may never turn on. On the other hand, if your parents are wilder than hyenas or something terrible happens to you in life, BOOM!, you just might find yourself with a mental disorder. There are chemicals that may contribute to depression, but none of this has been proven 100 per cent. Adrenaline makes you feel energetic, but cortisol and, particularly, glucocorticoid hormones deplete energy and cause you to feel that death grip of depression. Those glucocorticoids also lower the production of dopamine, reducing your sense of motivation and pleasure.
Stress reduces serotonin (the big gun in promoting perkiness) and can cause a loss of interest in being alive.
Let’s just say that stress comes with the territory of mental disarray because the endless parade of shame and self-loathing means that toxic chemicals are running riot. And what turns them on? Is it a predator with razor fangs? Is it a nuclear weapon heading for your back garden? No, it’s because your thoughts are on that spin cycle of doom: rumination. This mode of thinking can lead to anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
The Stress of Stress
If you suffer from any physical disease and add stress, it can exacerbate the problem, or even create a completely new illness; you may have a heart attack because you’re so worried about your shingles. This second hit of stress from ruminating about your illness or injury can cause limitless damage. Mindfulness can help you calm your thoughts down to avoid the second hit. The ladling of stress on top of shame, on top of the illness is what ultimately crushes you rather than the physical or mental problems themselves.
Saving the Day: Neuroplasticity
At this point you may be throwing your arms up, thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do with this information about stress? I am the way I am. So what if I’m addicted to my habits – does that make me a bad person?’ This is the equivalent of saying, ‘I can’t do anything, I’m a slob, it’s my destiny, and it’s written in the stars.’ As if a slob fairy came to you in the night when you were asleep and trashed your house. There is no destiny about it. Even with no arms and no legs, you can still clean your room – my mother used to vacuum with her teeth: let’s learn from her.
Nowadays, we know that your genes give you the basics (let’s think of them as a pot of potential chemicals and a vague blueprint of neural connections) but that they can be altered. Even when you’re in the womb, everything – and I mean everything – you experience reconfigures the neural patterns which reflect how you think, feel and behave. The brain is never static; the patterns and connections are in constant flux, in more possible configurations than there are stars in the universe. There is no finished model called ‘you’; we’re all in a state of flux. This is the constant shape-shifting known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the capacity to create new neural connections. Our brains are like sponges that change shape with every thought and experience. Even after reading this sentence, your brain wiring will have changed.
Our brains are made up of trillions of intricately connected neurons that are in continual communication, sending electrochemical signals to each other. We can’t eavesdrop on what they’re communicating about, but if you place someone inside an fMRI scanner and ask them to do specific tasks or think specific thoughts, the neurons in various areas are activated, and this gives us some clues as to what’s going on upstairs. There can be a whole ‘Kanye West on tour’ light-show going on in your brain while you’re just sitting around having a pedicure.
It’s like Pass the Parcel. Each neuron passes on information – not some crap plastic toy wrapped in newspaper, but crucial information – via electric currents, triggering the release of specific chemicals, or neurotransmitters. They bathe the brain in various recipes, which make you do what you do, think what you think and feel what you feel. If you repeat certain behaviours, thoughts or feelings, the neural connections associated with them become harder wired, and the harder wired they are, the more you’ll repeat the same behaviours, thoughts or feelings. Et voilà, a habit is created, which limits your view of the world and of yourself.
Now that we know the brain is in a constant state of change, it’s clear that by altering our thinking we can change the landscape and break unhelpful patterns and the production of chemicals that accompany them.
Here’s a theory on why focusing attention might affect neuroplasticity. A part of your brain called the nucleus basalis (it’s adjacent to the brain stem) has little neural spikes that secrete a chemical throughout the cortex when it’s stimulated. (I won’t even tell you the name: it’s way too long.) This chemical juice can strengthen the connections between neurons once they’ve been activated. When we focus our attention, the stuff they squirt out produces neuroplasticity. This could be one reason why the power of thinking physically changes our brain. But how can we do it? I bring the topic back to that old brain sculptor: MBCT.
How Mindfulness Enhances Neuroplasticity
When we practise mindfulness, we can take advantage of neuroplasticity to release ourselves from the bondage of our habits. To do that, we need to learn how to use our brains effectively, to strengthen certain neural connections and break others, turn the chemicals up or down to make them work for us and not against us.
Some people don’t bother learning about the hardware that runs their computer or study the engine in their car. I so understand: it’s boring, and who has time? The rub is: when the engine goes you can get another car, but when we break down there is no newer model to replace the old one.
Now that we know about neuroplasticity, we can no longer say that we can’t change, that we are what we are and we can’t help it; we’re just a bigger version of the original baby. By learning about the brain and how malleable it is, we can understand that the brain changes when we change our thinking. We do this by questioning our habits of thinking and making conscious decisions about how we want to live our lives. We can intentionally redecorate our neural interiors to throw out the old patterns and update and improve on them.
Animals do the same old, same old, until evolution moves them on by giving them a hump to deal with a lack of water, or a long neck to get to the leaves at the top of the tree. Animals don’t have to come up with these things; evolution does it for them. We, however, have the potential to use our thoughts consciously to evolve because we can advance and improve ourselves by our thoughts alone; we don’t have to wait around until it happens to us. The brain isn’t designed to stop learning, and so when we stop upgrading it the wiring gets locked and we resort to being on automatic pilot and to our old habits. To evolve, we have to break away from genetic habits and use what we’ve learnt as a species purely as a base to work from.
If evolution is our contribution to the future, then our free will is how we initiate the process.
This is a quote from one of the greatest experts on the neuroscience of mindfulness, Richard Davidson.
There is a promising science emerging on how mindfulness ‘works’ at the level of brain/ bodily physiology and functioning: its findings are starting to mirror the reports from subjective experience (i.e. what people ‘feel’ is happening).
Recent developments in neuroscience have demonstrated that the structure and function of the brain is by no means fixed in childhood, and that brains remain ‘neuroplastic’, i.e. changeable, throughout our lives. An increasing number of brain imaging/ MRI studies of the impact of mindfulness suggest that it reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling. Mindfulness meditation appears to reshape the neural pathways, increasing the density and complexity of connections in areas associated with both cognitive abilities such as attention, self-awareness and introspection, and emotional areas connected with kindness, compassion and rationality, while decreasing activity and growth in those areas involved in anxiety, hostility, worry and impulsivity.
Not to push the point too hard, but here are a few more reasons to think about practising mindfulness.
The US National Institute of Health published the outcome of research on meditators versus non-meditators. ‘The results showed a massive reduction in mortality compared with those who didn’t meditate. The meditation group showed a 23 per cent decrease in mortality over a nineteen-year period. There was also a 30 per cent decrease in rates of cardiovascular mortality.’
Other ways to live longer (if mindfulness isn’t for you) is to have a lot of friends around, marry someone who makes you laugh, keep learning, exercise, eat broccoli and don’t smoke.