It’s been used in Eastern traditions for over 2500 years,
our Psychologists rave about it, the business world is using it in aid of
better decision making, it’s widely used to promote mental wellbeing, and even
schools are adopting it’s principle in aid of effective learning, but why
Neurologists have been researching mindfulness for over 40
years to ascertain its benefits in aiding neuroplasticity. The research and
subsequent findings of neurologist and scientist Dr Jeffrey M. Schwartz are
astonishing. In order to clearly understand the benefits, it’s important to
define the problem we are faced with.
Deceptive brain messages are any false/inaccurate thought or
unhelpful or distracting impulse, urge, or desire that takes you away from your
true goals and intentions in life ie. Your true self. The brain listens to all
messages, including deceptive brain messages. From here it creates bodily
sensations, followed in this case by habitual and often unhealthy responses
Mindfulness is about assessing your own receptivity to
deceptive brain messages and consequent actions. If we take a close look at the
brain we will find the brain’s habit centre. Our brains are powerful processing
machines, much like computers. They take in information, process it, and
deliver an outcome. What you might not know is that all repeated actions,
thoughts, and feelings make their way to the brain’s habit centre. Mindfulness
provides an ‘observational’ frame to help us make appropriate decisions.
So what is the difference between the brain and the mind? The brain puts out the call and the mind decides whether to listen. This process can be effective if we are in a constant habit of using the powers of wise mind, the culmination of equal parts logic and emotion. However it’s often the case that either one or the other, more specifically emotion mind in relation to mental illness, is more dominant, therefore producing more deceptive brain messages and consequently more unhealthy thoughts, behaviours, and feelings.
You’ve possibly heard of the fact that cells that fire together, wire together. This is the theory behind Hebb’s Law. We can see this in one of two ways, either as a potential problem or a potential solution. First we must ask, how do you get the right cells to wire together? By combining wise mind with attention density. Attention density simply put means how you focus your attention in a sustained way. If you are familiar with mindfulness, you will know that the basic principle behind it is to make a conscious choice to bring your attention to something, usually the breath as it is ever present.
They say ‘you are what you eat’, and this philosophy stems from the idea that your brain becomes what you focus on, otherwise known as the Quantum Zeno Effect. This gives us much understanding into the effects that positive affirmations have on us. If we focus our attention on positive thoughts then they will undoubtedly end up making their way to the brain’s habit centre. Those who are continually reminding us to “look on the bright side” or “think positively” have reason to believe that the mere impact of positive thinking alone would denote a much happier existence. The reality is, we will come across difficult situations, negative thoughts, and uncomfortable emotions. So if we only think positively we are not preparing our brains to effectively deal with unhappy circumstances. Balance is crucial if our brains become what we focus on, once again underpinning the benefits of wise mind.
Many would also have us believe that we can will ourselves out of mental illness, but this is can be as challenging as wishing it weren’t present in the first place. If we go back to the function of the brain as a procession machine, the brain sends out a signal, followed by a desire to act, and subsequently a voluntary action takes place. Scientists have identified that the desire is determined by the brain, but the action is not. In fact it takes the brain .3 seconds to produce the desire, and then .2 seconds later we see the result of the voluntary action. This is the underlying principle of Veto Power. So what we cannot stop is the desire, but what we do have control over is the decision to act. Already you’re probably thinking .2 seconds is not enough time to amend or modify an action. This is another benefit of mindfulness. Continual practice increases emotional distance which consequently increases the time we have to make a decision about our will to act or not. The key is over time you don’t want to always be acting based on desire, but instead asking yourself, “How will I feel if I don’t act?” The answer to this is simple, proud.
Dr Schwartz has combined all of his research in order to create 4 healthy steps to improving mental wellbeing and function using mindfulness. So the next time you are practicing your mindfulness techniques, ensure you are getting the maximum benefit of the millennia old tradition, not just simply by breathing, but by making the choice to refocus your attention through:
Relabelling: Identifying thoughts
Reframing: “It’s not me, it’s just my brain”
Refocusing: Directing attention to an alternate, more healthier, thought, feeling, or behaviour
Revaluing: Not taking thoughts as fact. Instead focus on constructive, healthy thoughts, feelings, or behaviours.
These simple steps will in turn lead to self-directed neuroplasticity, in simple terms the creation of newer, healthier habits.