Science of the Mindful Brain
by Dan Siegel, MD
Passionate and dedicated, Dan Siegel has a gift for bringing things together—creating groundbreaking interdisciplinary studies, synthesizing disparate ideas into whole new fields, and building bridges between the scientific and psychotherapeutic communities. In his book The Mindful Brain, he integrates mindfulness meditation with brain research to present an entirely new understanding of how well-being emerges as a natural—and scientifically provable—result of mindfulness practices. Here he shares a brief overview of this work.
All too often, the inner side of our human experience, the subjective texture of our interior world, remains far from the focus of the buzzing hive of activity in our everyday lives. We are usually pushed to be outward-peering human doings, far from the inner peace achievable by human beings living their innate potential. Mindfulness practices offer a way to focus on the inner journey and, as we shall see, also contribute to overall health and well-being.
My journey into the formal study of mindfulness began in an unexpected way. I had coauthored a book on parenting called Parenting from the Inside Out and several people asked how we would teach meditation to the participants attending workshops on the book. I was puzzled. Meditation? I had never meditated. The inquiring person would point to the word “mindfulness” in our book—a term that we chose to use for an important principle of parenting—and assume it implied “meditation.” For us, mindfulness meant the act of being intentional, awake, and conscientious in one’s actions as a parent. Unaware until then of mindfulness meditation, these questions motivated me to personally explore this ancient practice—and its more recent scientific findings.
Mindful awareness can be enhanced through various means, such as the traditional practices of mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and centering prayer. These practices create a state in which the individual experiences a widening of awareness that encompasses a sense of attention to one’s own intention, an immersion in the rich sensations of the body and the breath, and an awareness of the mind itself—an awareness of awareness. This self-observation comes with the capacity to experience the mind’s activities with objectivity. In this way, a thought or feeling becomes sensed as just that, a thought or feeling, rather than the totality of the person’s identity in the moment.
The three foundational elements of mindfulness—objectivity, openness, and observation—create a tripod that stabilizes the mind’s attentional lens. This enables the mind to become conscious of the mind itself and thus become liberated from the common ways in which it is imprisoned by its own preoccupations. This is why, through mindfulness practice, we can transform self-created suffering into personal liberation.
As we engage in mindful awareness practices, we have the potential to develop long-term personality traits from intentionally created mindful states. Research has suggested that these mindfulness traits include the capacity to suspend judgments, to act in awareness of our moment-to-moment experience, to achieve emotional equilibrium or equanimity, to describe our internal world with language, and to have a burgeoning sense of self-observation. (Baer et al. 2006).
Mindfulness and Well-Being
Studies of long-term practitioners of mindfulness meditation suggest that mindfulness practice leads to improvements in physiological, psychological, and interpersonal health. Specifically, it appears to lead to a number of changes in the brain that can explain this spectrum of health—from the functioning of the immune system to the ways we empathically relate to others. Why would the focus of our awareness result in such a broad range of health benefits?
To investigate this question, I went on an expedition into the mind to see how mindfulness promotes well-being, and I began to see a fascinating convergence in the domains of relationships, brain function, and mindfulness.
Studies in parent–child attachment suggested that several important processes, including how we balance our emotions and how we have insight into ourselves, are the outcome of attuned, healthy relationships. Studies of the brain revealed that a form of neural integration that takes place in the regions of the prefrontal cortex was essential in attaining healthy attachments and perhaps mental health in general. Amazingly, when I discovered the science of mindfulness, it seemed that these very same experiences of neural integration and healthy interpersonal relationships were also found in mindfulness meditation!
The desire to understand this fascinating overlap drove me to immerse myself in the direct experience of mindfulness practice in retreats. This experience led to the proposal that mindfulness practice was more than attention training, and perhaps even more than emotional regulation exercises, which is what existing studies were examining. It seemed to me that mindfulness practice could be instead considered a relational process—except the relationship was between your observing self and your experiencing self. Looking at the social circuitry of the brain, perhaps we could understand the ways in which mindful awareness functioned to bring health into our lives. Mindfulness could then be seen as a way of becoming your own best friend. Just as interpersonal attunement, at the heart of healthy person-to-person relationships, could be seen to promote integration in the brain, mindfulness could be conceptualized as a form of internal attunement that promoted the growth of those same integrative prefrontal fibers in the brain itself.
I soon learned that unpublished research at the time was about to reveal that these integrative regions of the brain were thicker in long-term mindfulness meditators! The finding revealed that even after only eight weeks of mindfulness training, the brain tended to shift its frontal activity to the left hemisphere, suggesting that a person is ready to move toward events in life—even those that are uncomfortable and unpleasant—rather than moving away from them. These research findings revealed neural correlates of psychological resilience developed with mindfulness training. Here we could see that how we focus our attention could actually change the firing in our brains, leading to changes in the connections among neurons that make up the actual structure of the brain. You’ve read that right: the mind (the flow of energy and information we direct by the focus of our attention) can change both the activity and then the structure of the brain.
When we put all of this together, we find that how we focus our attention—how we learn to be mindful—in our relationships with others (interpersonal well-being) and within ourselves (mindful awareness practice) can actually promote the growth of areas of the brain connected to the core of well-being. We can focus the mind to become more resilient, emotionally balanced, and empathic, enabling a deeper sense of meaning and connection in our lives. As we achieve these widened senses of well-being, we may also come to experience an expanded sense of ourselves, broadening our circles of compassion and feeling a deeper sense of connection to others and the larger world in which we live. Waking up to our membership in this interdependent world of being human may be a vital development in our personal and collective efforts to bring well-being to ourselves and to our planet. With mindfulness, we can become the best friends of each other and ourselves and contribute to the collective process of healing our world.
Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, is a scientist, psychiatrist, and internationally renowned speaker and teacher on the interface of neurobiology, psychiatry, and mindful awareness. The author of several books, including The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience, he is currently codirector of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.