Can you train your brain?

Can you train your brain through mindfulness?

Posted June 21st, 2022

Is mindfulness merely a buzzword, hashtagged liberally on Insta, sprinkled into wellbeing policies and something that only a spiritual person ‘gets’? Absolutely not. Mindfulness and meditation are growing in gravitas, often considered alternative or complementary therapies for mental and physical conditions, and accessible to all. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find evidence that affirms their potentially life changing impact. Small but consistent practice can train the brain to improve emotional response and memory, and cope with anxiety, stress and everyday tribulations.

Focused on the present but deeply rooted in the past

Mindfulness is a type of meditation: the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us (www.mindful.org).

Whilst mindfulness was already a thing in Hinduism around 2300BC, it was only brought to the western world around 40 years ago. When focused on the present, the aim is to stop worrying or hypothesising about the past or future, avoid negative thoughts, distraction or being on high alert (not easy in the fast-paced, on-demand world we are accustomed to).

Mindfulness is your superpower

Research shows that practising mindfulness can reduce anxiety, stress, improve sleep and happiness and even reduce blood pressure and chronic pain. It enables you to regain control of difficult situations and provides an ‘escape route’ when you need time out or are feeling burnt out. Ultimately, you can bring yourself back to what really matters by leveraging this superpower that’s already within you!

Everyday mindfulness

Mindfulness is always accessible, and we are all capable of it, but it takes practice. There are slightly longer, structured practices that we will explore, but for everyday mini mindfulness, you could try:

  • Taking the time to appreciate how something impacts your senses, like the smell and feel of a book, or make a mental note of what sounds you can hear around you
  • Feel gratitude and acceptance
  • Tune in to your body and ascertain how you’re feeling physically and mentally. Perhaps do a body scan from head to toe, releasing tension as you purposefully relax
  • Take at least five deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly
  • Slow down when eating and appreciate every mouthful, instead of gulping it down on autopilot
  • Notice something beautiful or natural

Modern life and technology steal us away from many of these things – how often do you miss something because you’re multitasking, glued to your phone or only half listening to someone? Do not feel guilty for doing ‘nothing’ while you focus on mindfulness.

Brain training through meditation

There’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodelling the physical structure of your brain (www.mindful.org).

We often think our brain is wired a certain way and can’t be altered – it’s what makes us unique after all. But research has shown that people who practise mindful meditation can train their brain, improving memory, happiness and coping mechanisms. This is due to neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to develop and adapt throughout our life and grow new neurons.

A neuroscientist from Harvard Business School, Sara Lazar, used MRI technology to assess brain changes after mindful meditation. Of those with extensive meditation experience, 40-50-year-old meditators had the same amount of grey matter in their cortex (controlling movement, memory and emotions) as the 20–30-year-olds. Wow!

Her subsequent study involved putting complete beginners through a mindfulness training programme, incorporating weekly class and daily mindful yoga and sitting meditation, to assess their psychological wellbeing and symptoms linked to depression and insomnia. Astonishingly, after 8 weeks, brain volume had increased in these key areas:

  • The hippocampus, responsible for memory storage, learning, spatial orientation and emotion regulation
  • The temporoparietal junction, responsible for empathy and compassion

The brain volume decreased in the amygdala, the area responsible for triggering ‘fight or flight’ response in a threatening situation. The reduction in the amygdala was reflected in practitioner stress levels, which also reduced accordingly.

So, if you thought your brain would only decline and shrivel with age, think again! The behaviours and choices you make today can train your brain to optimise your long-term happiness, wellbeing and mental capacity.

Our step-by-step approach to meditation and mindfulness – Get started

There are plenty of online resources, apps and books that teach mindfulness and meditation. Yoga is also a great way to stay physically and mentally in tune with yourself, focus on breathing techniques and stay in the present moment. As it’s practitioner-led, you don’t even need to think about what to do. 

Below is a step-by-step approach to meditation. It sounds simple to do nothing, but we are not conditioned to do so! Give it a try but be patient with yourself. 

  1. Find peace and quiet at a time when you won’t be interrupted. Sit or kneel comfortably and close your eyes if you wish. Sitting encourages the necessary energy flow (avoid lying as it can make you sleepy)
  2. Decide how long you will meditate for. Five to ten minutes is fine for a beginner – set a timer so you can focus
  3. Clear your mind
  4. Become aware of your breath and slow it down, inhaling and exhaling deeply
  5. Acknowledge any judgements or thoughts and let them pass (passively observe)
  6. If your mind wanders (it likely will), bring it back to the present. Repeat.
  7. At the end, open your eyes and notice how you are feeling. Absorb your practice – don’t rush into something else
  8. Thank yourself

Aim to practise daily at a time that suits you. Start to feel the benefits of daily meditation and mindfulness, when doing nothing is the most productive and rewarding thing you can do.

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