What Is Mindfulness and How Does It Change the Brain?

June 28, 2016

Tori Olds, a therapist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, defines mindfulness and discusses how it changes the brain.

 

A Definition of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is really only two things: Observing our experience, and not judging it.

It’s really two simple elements and when I ask my clients to do mindfulness practice, which I usually do, I’ll say, “Hey, make it a habit. Before bed—5 minutes—and then you can increase that. Just sitting and noticing what you’re experiencing. It doesn’t really matter what that is.” Even when you’re experiencing boredom in doing this practice, whatever the gestalt of your experience, you’re just sitting and noticing it.

Using Mindfulness to Tune Into Your Body

Sometimes I’ll coach people to really tune into their body a little bit because that’s where emotions live, but whatever you’re experiencing—physically, thoughts, body—you should sit with what is it like to be me in this moment? What’s that like? And then you just try not to judge it.

It can be a tricky thing if you do judge the feeling. You try to not judge yourself for not being free of judgment; you can always go back to not judging again. You simply say, “Isn’t that interesting, I judged,” and you just keep noticing and being with the feeling or thought.

The Neocortex Calms Down the Emotions

With the brain—and this is so cutting-edge and revelatory—when we’re observing, that observer self is like the neocortex. The neocortex actually has innately a sort of a dampening, regulatory function—when it’s working, it sort of calms down the emotions. Some people overuse that and get very heady, heady, heady and completely suppress their emotions, but the neocortex has sort of a little bit of a dampening, regulatory function.

Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together

If we’re using that regulatory function, but we’re not using it to look away from the feelings but really being present with them, then the emotion is still there. It’s firing as well, and there’s this saying, neurons that fire together, wire together. If they’re both activated at the same time, they’re actually going to be more linked, communicating, it’s like they’re both there, they’re gonna start talking to each other, they’re gonna be really linked up. New neuronal fibers would be made and myelinated.

Brain Scans from People Who Meditate are Pretty Amazing

This is an actual change that we can see in a brain scan. Brain scans from people who’ve meditated are actually pretty amazing, very little effort is needed to show this neural firing on a scan. As those parts are together, then we have more integration, where we can think and feel and have flexibility. There’s actually a lot of wonderful things that come out of that integration.

What’s the difference between practicing mindfulness and meditation?

A lot of meditations are mindfulness meditations. There’s also compassion and other kinds of meditations, but people that meditate, especially in eastern parts of the world, have done mindfulness forever. There’s good reason, apparently, now we’re learning. We just call it mindfulness because it is a state that you can take with you anytime, but also to separate it from the spiritual domain a bit.

Some people don’t associate with spirituality, so we just pair it down to the actual elements that are really scientifically proven. However, if you want to call it meditation, like I do in my practice, that’s perfectly fine. Personally, I’ll say, “I have a meditation practice,” or sometimes I’ll say, “I have a mindfulness practice,” but it’s sort of the same thing. I’m just using a slightly different language that’s kinda pairing it down to exactly what we’re looking at in psychology.

How long does enlightenment take?

[Laughing] I love that question. Three years! No, I’m just kidding [more laughter].

It’s funny; I mean, not that I necessarily believe that there is enlightenment as a final place. We’re all going, but it’s not like a real final destination. The reason I used that word earlier is that there is a state when we really have this integration in our brain that is like, “Woah, I kinda feel enlightened!” It’s sort of what you hear people talk about when they are really being present.

There’s Always More We Can Do Together

It really depends on the person how long it will take. A lot of people have done mindfulness on their own for years before they come see me. It has helped—sometimes a lot, sometimes a little—but either way, there’s always more that we can do together. There’s more that two brains can accomplish together than one. We’re sort of social creatures and we’re meant to be in a relationship, and there’s material that’s inside: traumas, and memories, and dynamics, that we should approach with support; our brain is gonna do better that way. It will feel safer when there is someone to be there, a coach to help with the process.

Therapy Can Be Like Practicing Mindfulness with a Coach

Therapy is a lot like practicing mindfulness with a mindfulness coach, or a friend, or a parent or someone who is really there to help you deepen your practice.

Starting Therapy in Austin, TX

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