'The Inside Track' Programme materials and resources

Appendix 1: Neuroscience of mindfulness & resilience

Stress in the brain and body – how mindfulness can help

 

Human beings have evolved to be hyper-attentive – it’s what helped us to succeed as a species, as we learnt to survive in a dangerous world of predators. Today those same dangers don’t exist for us. But their legacy is found in the human mind: it is easily distracted, and habitually examines past events and tries to anticipate the future.

 

As we saw in Part 1, the brain can’t distinguish between real threats and ‘superficial’ threats. And in modern life there are many superficial threats – an insecure job, a dysfunctional relationship, or a pressing deadline. Our brain treats these ‘threats’ in exactly the same way as a mortal threat. And what happens in our brain and nervous system when we perceive a threat – real or superficial – is quite dramatic.

 

A good way to explain what happens is by imagining the brain to be an office building, and assigning different roles in running that office to different parts of our brain.

 

Let’s start with the thalamus. This brain part is responsible for receiving sensory input – what is going on around us. It’s like the CCTV system that many office buildings have. It simply receives data to be relayed back to other parts of the brain.

 

Next, the amygdala checks that information. It is like the brain’s security guard – it’s there to keep us safe. The amygdala then checks with the hippocampus (which is like the brain’s memory bank) to see if what the thalamus is showing is safe or dangerous.

If the hippocampus doesn’t retrieve a record, or memory of a threatening event that might match the current experience, then the amygdala will let the input data go first to the anterior cingulate, which is like the boss’s secretary. And then onto to the pre-frontal cortex, which is like the boss of the organisation -responsible for complex thinking, decision making and planning.

When we are in a state of control and calm, then our pre-frontal cortex is doing a lot of good work for us. It’s as if the boss’s secretary is letting the information get through to the boss, who deals with it effectively and in our best interests.

 

However, if the hippocampus does retrieve a memory of a threatening event that could match the current experience, then something very different takes place. The amygdala security guard takes over and ‘hijacks’ the brain to respond to the threat. It stops any information going to the pre-frontal cortex (the boss) via the anterior cingulate (the boss’s secretary) – meaning we can’t really think straight. It’s at times like this that our automatic thoughts are running very rapidly, and unchecked.

In addition, this then sets in train a rapid process in the body’s nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in, turning on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. This causes blood and energy to rush to our muscles so that we can physically escape the threat. Stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) are released.

 

As the sympathetic nervous system gets switched on, this switches off the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for growth, healing and maintenance. The more it gets turned off, the greater the risk of damage to organs and the immune system.  

 

Mindfulness practice and techniques can help us to mitigate the worst effects of the fight/flight/freeze process. It can’t stop it from kicking in initially, as it’s such a deeply embedded survival mechanism. However, the more you train yourself to become aware of what’s going on in your mind and body, the more you can nip things in the bud when you notice the first signs of the stress response. You can consciously choose to pause, step back, and take a moment for the unavoidable physiological and biochemical processes to run through you – without rushing to automatic and unhelpful judgements or actions.

 

When you can do this, you’re able to recover composure and clear thinking much more quickly and easily. This is the middle stage of the ABC model in action: Being with your experience. It’s the bridge that takes you from unhelpful autopilot reactions and into the intentional mode.

 

 

Clinical research into mindfulness

 

Mindfulness has been practised in a variety of forms for several millennia. Neuroscience research is providing a fast-growing evidence base of the positive impacts of mindfulness practice.

 

Focus, concentration and performance

  • Improvements in three aspects of attention: prioritising and managing tasks; voluntarily focusing on specific information; staying alert to environment (Jha & Bhaime, 2007, Cognitive, Affective & Behavioural Neuroscience).

  • Increased activity in the left pre-frontal cortex, connected with interest, and decreased activity in the right pre-frontal cortex, connected with aversion. (Carter et al 2005, Tang et al 2007).

Cognitive functioning (learning, memory, problem solving)

  • Increased grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking (Holzel, Carmody, Vangel et al 2011). These include the insula (Holzel et al 2008; Luders, S et al 2005), the hippocampus (Holzel et al 2008; Luders, S et al 2009, Maguire et al 2000), and the prefrontal cortex (Lazar et al 2005; Luders, S et al 2009).

 

Wellbeing & emotional positivity

  • Increase activity in mood-lifting brain parts (Davidson 2004).

  • Reductions in the cortical thinning in prefrontal regions that happens with ageing, and with depression. (Lazar et al 2005).

Empathy and kindness

  • Enhanced compassion (Lutz, Brefcynski-Lewis et all 2008).

  • Improves psychological function of empathy (Lazar et al 2005).