Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Mindful Brain, the Neurobiology of Well-Being

Sharon Dutton
A CD by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, (2008)

Dr. Siegel identifies three ways in which mindful awareness can enhance our lives:
> improves our physical well-being,
> enhances our relationships,
> develops a sense of deep mental coherence and meaning
In his practice as a family counselor, he has found commonalities in the following three separate fields:
1. Mindful awareness practice
2. Secure parent-child relationship
3. Science of brain
Dr. Siegel defines mindfulness as a state of intentionally paying attention in the present moment without judgment, and describes it with an acronym:
C = curiosity, O = openness, A = awareness, L = love
Mindful awareness is a form of ancient wisdom – present in every culture – and often used to promote health and well-being. This CD explains how the physiology of the brain is changed through the practice of mindful meditation, and will explain how mindful meditation enhances relationships with others.

When mindful awareness is recreated regularly, the activation that occurs in the brain leads to structural changes in the brain itself, which leads to a long-term state of mindful awareness.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction:
Dr. Siegel has developed the following first seven attributes as proven outcomes of secure parent-child relationships. He claims that, as well as developing these first seven attributes, (perhaps through practicing the first seven), having secure parent child relationships promotes the growth of the prefrontal cortex. All nine attributes are factors that can be improved with mindful awareness. He also found that the same first seven are all functions of an undamaged, middle or prefrontal cortex (PFC)

1. Regulating the body – balancing the autonomic nervous system, acting as an autonomic accelerator during excitement, or nervousness
2. Attuned communication with someone, associated with general well-being
3. Emotional balance – The limbic area regulates emotion, affective arousal, and affective states. Below this is the brain stem, or reptilian brain, which is responsible for states of attention, for Fight, Flight, or Freeze response to danger. Brain stem and limbic areas help regulate and create affective states. Combining these with hormonal firing, (the somatic state), these three states are called sub-cortal affective states. The PFC regulates these such that we can be aroused enough to give life meaning, but not too much, nor too less.
4. Response flexibility – the ability to take in various stimuli, and to reflect before acting. The middle PFC area is essential for creating a disconnect between impulse and action, which is crucial to social and emotional intelligence.
5. Insight -- “the capacity of the mind as it uses parts of the brain to create itself and to possibly develop mental time travel, or connecting the past with the present and the future, as we imagine the future to be.
6. Empathy – the capacity to see through another’s perspective – to “see” their mind. Combining empathy with insight = mind sight.
7. Ability to modulate fear -- GABA (gama amino buteric acid), is released to inhibit impulses – calms things down (fear modulation). While it is impossible to unlearn fear, we can grow new neurons from the prefrontal area that allows us to override the fear from the amygdala.
8 Intuition – being open to the wisdom of the body. There are neural networks around the heart and around the intestines, which serve as information processors – parallel distributors between brain and heart. Dr. Siegel defines brain as energy and information flow. The flow is the neural processes and can happen in the skull, or throughout the body. The whole body has information that can be brought to the middle prefrontal cortex in order to gain access to information – to become sensitive to the physiological sensations of the body. S ensations I mages F eelings T houghts
9 Morality – imagining the better social good, developing a deep sense of compassion and concern for others that allows us to feel connected to a greater whole.

A study by Farb et al (2007) revealed that after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, one’s electro encephalogram revealed a left shift. This indicates an “approach” mindset; a shift to the right indicates a “withdraw” mindset. Improvements can be expected in resiliency, flexibility, empathy (relationships), and openness. We get a much deeper sense of well-being, from a fundamental process that is at the heart of well being – the process of attunement, of interpersonal attunement and internal attunement -- observing the self – tuning in to the experiencing self as open and curious, (COAL), resonating with each other, having an open stance, and in the brain, activation of specific circuits that involve the middle prefrontal area.

Mind, Brain and Relationships are distinct
-- mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information
-- brain is collection of neurons distributed in the skull and throughout the body. Energy and information flow can ride across the firing patterns of these neural connections – neural pathways, neural network.
-- relationships are the way we share energy and information.

The brain can be influenced by the information and energy flow of mindful meditation practice – by activating the brain in specific ways, we allow it to reinforce certain connections. By using intentional focus, we sculpt the brain, thereby altering the connections in the brain toward health.

One of the primary functions of the MPC is integrative. The brain is comprised of the spinal cord, brain stem, limbic area, and the cortex. The middle prefrontal area is connected to the brain stem and limbic area – which connects the body to the brain stem, the limbic area and the cortex, and the social signals of other people. Mental coherence emerges from neural integration, and mindfulness promotes integration.

One study demonstrated that meditation led to growth of fibers in the middle prefrontal area. The degree of thickening of middle prefrontal areas and the right insula is proportional to the number of years spent practising meditation in the vipassana tradition.

Architecturally, the brain has a large surface area, but is folded back upon itself. Incoming present experience data converges with prior learning and perpetual judgments, enslaving our ability to see the present clearly. By choosing to release those judgments, and to focus instead on the fullness of the present moment, influences from past experiences are disengaged, enabling a purer form of experience. Using awareness thereby enables us to experience the ordinary as extraordinary.

Certain aspects of the brain are activated during mindful meditation. Mindful awareness is found to use the ancient social circuitry of the brain for internal reflection and for interpersonal attunement, and to develop an open resonating process of our observing self with our experiencing self.

Reflective coherence – how we use the power of reflection in mindful reflection to create states of coherence (created in 3 domains: interpersonal attunement, mindful awareness, and middle PFC function) involves layers of integration – functionally distinct parts of a system linking into a whole. The nine functions (body function to morality) emerge from mindfulness because of neural integration.

Practising mindfulness (yoga, tai chi, prayer, etc.) intentionally for a focused period of time, ultimately stimulates the brain to form new neural connections in the resonant circuits – superiorTC regions -- that interact with mirror neurons, through the insula, and up into the m p f c. The activation of the resonant circuit will reinforce the circuitry as we develop a trait of mindfulness, being observant of everything within and around us.
Mindful awareness, secure relationships, mental health, and the integrative function of prefrontal area are all indicators of well-being and emotional balance.


Dr. Siegel is director of the Mindsight Institute, and the founding editor of the Norton Series on Interpersonal neurobiology. While this CD has a slightly promotional bent, (it is meant to accompany his newest book, “the Mindful Brain”), it speaks to the plasticity of the brain, the separateness of mind and brain, and the ability of the mind to biologically alter the structure of and functioning patterns in the brain through the ancient practice of meditation.

Ironically, it also speaks somewhat to the dissociation that western society still perceives between mind and body, by assuming a need to quantify what the body knows to be true. Fortunately, the studies that he mentions “many studies have shown…” are in support of his interests in the neurobiological connections between brain and mindful meditation practices. He mentions them frequently enough, and repeats himself enough to impart a flavour of western “proof”. However, a quick check with the University of Toronto library reveals that there are indeed, many current studies that are exploring brain activity during meditation, many of which do not seek to quantifiably justify the benefits of meditative practice, but to better understand the brain as a functioning biological organ.

Dr. Siegel includes a brief referral to our western education system, and recommends that children be taught reflective practices from a very early age. This is because of the interconnectedness that is experienced through mindful or reflective practice, and the integrative stimulation that mindful meditation can procure in the middle prefrontal cortex region. Otherwise, he laments, our society tends to think of ourselves as disjunct, not connected to each other, and certainly, not connected to the earth, (not in a spiritual sense, and no longer in a physical sense either).

A study by Davina Chan and Marjorie Woollacott from August 2007 demonstrated
that “meditation produces long-term increases in the efficiency of the executive attentional network (anterior cingulate/prefrontal cortex)”, (but not on the orientation networks). Wouldn’t this be a safer, healthier strategy to help our ADHD children, than medicating them with Ritalin? They would also later benefit from the stronger middle prefrontal cortex integration function that Dr. Siegel refers to, rather than face the increased risk of heart abnormalities that are associated with Ritalin. And, as Dr. Siegel recommends, if administrators called it “Reflection” instead of meditation, they would avoid the western public’s association of meditation with spirituality, particularly Buddhism – not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s the politically correct mentality that I am referring to. Hmm… will that be medication or meditation?

Chan, Davina and Woolacott, Marjorie, 2007 Effects of Level of Meditation Experience on Attentional Focus: Is the Efficiency of Executive or Orientation Networks Improved?” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, August 1, 2007, 13(6): 651-658. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.7022


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