The Mindful Brain

the mindful brainResearch now indicates that new brain cells and neurological connections can be created throughout the human lifespan – and mindfulness is a great way of nurturing this ability!

Previously, it was thought that the brain could only grow and make new connections during childhood.

Author of the book “Mindsight”, Dr Daniel Siegel is an American psychiatrist, who has devoted much study to the capacity of the brain to grow, change and adapt – known as neuroplasticity. He describes neuroplasticity as the capacity to grow new brain cells and create new connections in the brain in response to experience (2010).

“The brain… is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise (pg 47).

Another improtant finding from the research, is that “the law of little things” is critical. This means that small things repeated each day add up over time to produce brain health.

Improve Neuroplasticity with a Mindful Brain

Siegel (2010) recommends six daily practices to maximize brain health and improve neuroplasticity:

  1. Develop relationships with people. Make time for face-to-face connecting and interacting with others, so that you engage your brain with verbal and non-verbal aspects. Take time to reflect on your connection to the people around, to further activate and reinforce your brain’s relational circuits.
  2. Focused Attention. Try and pay close attention to one task at a time, instead of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking requires continuous partial attention which places “strain on the brain”. Instead, engage in regular mindfulness meditation practices which allow you to strengthen your ability to focus your attention. Dr Siegel recommends allowing time for sustained focused attention on both external stimuli (eg reading, creative activities) and inner experiences (eg reflecting on thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).
  3. Engage in new activities and new ways of thinking. Novelty promotes brain repair and growth. Give new experiences a go, such as travelling, learning a new language, a musical instrument or skill. Research shows that humour fits into this category. A great opportunity to tell a joke or two!
  4. Good nutrition is really important. Omega-3 fats (particularly found in oily fish) and adequate protein, are the building blocks to create healthy brain cells and neurotransmitters which allow the brain cells to communicate with each other.
  5. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins (“feel good” hormones), and a protein in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). This protein is like a fertiliser for the brain as it enhances the growth of new neurones and facilitates neuron connectivity. Consider aerobic exercise in the 24 hours prior to a learning experience, such as a therapy session.
  6. Adequate sleep improves your brain function. Eight hours sleep allows enough time for the optimal five phases of Rapid Eye Movement (REM). REM is the phase of sleep in which the brain processes the information from events of the day. REM allows a consolidation of learning and recovery from the experiences of the day (NB excessive alcohol has been shown to interrupt the REM cycle).

If you would like to find out more about neuroplasticity and the benefits of the mindful brain, here is some recommended reading:

  • A worthwhile read is: “The Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom” (Rick Hanson & Richard Mendius, 2012).
  • “The Brain that Changes itself” (Norman Doidge, 2010) contains fascinating case studies.
  • Anything by Daniel Siegel! Dr Siegel has developed a meditation called the Wheel of Awareness Meditation which can be downloaded for free. It utilises his principles of internal and external focus – as well as focus on connection with others – to promote wellbeing and strengthen your mind.

Sarah Miller Psychologist BrisbaneAuthor: Sarah Miller, B Sc Hons (Psych), M Sc, (Forensic Psych).

Brisbane Psychologist Sarah Miller has a special interest in trauma therapy, and is currently investigating the gender differences in trauma and harmful behaviours as part of her PhD. She is experienced in utilising a number of therapies, which are backed up by strong scientific support.

You can book Brisbane Psychologist Sarah Miller online, or call Vision Psychology Mt Gravatt on (07) 3088 5422.