Mindful Meditation and the Brain
Some view meditation as new age, hippie nonsense because it is not a social norm to sit in silence and dig beneath the surface of the mind. Others liken it to tuning an instrument before playing it. I subscribe to the latter; nonetheless, meditation is an ancient practice that can be traced back 2,500 years. However, neuroscientists are just now beginning to measure the effects that it has on the brain. While there are many types of meditation, they all have the same function; reaching an internal state of consciousness in which one is attending to a specific focal point. The content of this paper will be predominantly about mindful meditation and how it positively affects the brain. The process of mindful meditation involves breath-focused relaxation order to keep the body calm and the mind aware. It is my hypothesis that mindful meditation can be used as a vehicle for the brain to improve attention, emotional regulation, and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. The primary goal for neuroscientists investigating mindful meditation is to understand the parts of the brain that are being used during meditative states and the long lasting effects of continuous practice. Meditation is linked to both state and trait-like effects (Didonna, 2009). State effects refer to changes that occur in individuals in the act of meditation. In contrast, trait-like changes occur over a period time as a consequence of sustained meditation practice. Trait-like effects are thought to result from stable, long-term transformations in brain activity and structure (Didonna, 2009). When studying trait-like versus state effects, scientists will be decipher what affects have clinical applications to help those in need (Didonna, 2009). The ideas behind mindfulness in the ancient context are awareness, attention, and remembering. Its purpose is to do away with negative schemas by developing comprehensive workings of the mind and how it relates to the material world. The goal of the meditator is to embrace whatever is happening in the present (Didonna, 2009). It is about becoming aware of the present moment without attachment (Austin, 1998). Alertness, love, kindness, and effort are all qualities that can be cultivated through the medium of mindful meditation. As mindfulness takes on the Western world, the implication of the word takes on more meaning. Today, qualities such as nonjudgment, acceptance, and compassion are associated with mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading neuroscientist and practitioner of mindful meditation defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1999). Kabat-Zinn’s definition essentially implies one’s intent, not avoiding the now, and the attitude of acceptance. In mindful meditation, these traits are all derivatives of attention. Attention is a blanket term for how we become cognizant among all things sensual, and then focus on that particular sense. It can be achieved through overt and covert methods. In mindful meditation, we focus on covert orienting by adjusting to the stimulus without moving the sensory receptors. Much like the brain itself, attention is not a unitary function and is comprised of the many components. The first of which is alerting, it triggers the parietal lobe in the right frontal area. Alerting permits one to focus on their breath or the task at hand. The second is re-orienting, and serves to activate the frontal eye field, temporal junction, pulvinar, and superior colliculus. Re-orienting is exercised when the mind is shifted back to focusing after wandering off. The third component is executive control which excites the anterior cingulated gyrus. Executive control is selectively attending to what the individual wants to focus on and actively inhibits things that are task irrelevant. These three sub-processes of attention were tested in a study done in China. Eighty undergraduate...
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