I recently finished Richard J. Davidson’s book,The Emotional Life of Your Brain. The book follows the brain research career of Davidson as he becomes fascinated with the outliers of his studies, those individuals who fell at the extremes, exceptional at either extreme. He became fascinated with answering the question, what makes these individuals so different.
To try and condense his 40 years as a researcher, let me just say that he began to realize that the emotional components of our minds are as important as the cognitive and analytical aspects. In the process, he came to recognize that we operate with six basic emotional styles: resilience, outlook, attention, self-awareness, social intuitiveness, and sensitivity to context. Individually we fall on a continuum with regard to each. For example, some of us are more tuned in to social contexts than others. Some of us are more resilient, or more positive in our outlook. Where we fall, though, is not written in stone. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to enhance the circuits that are most used and cull those that are not, allows us to change where we naturally fall. And, interestingly, mindfulness meditation is being shown as one very good way to accomplish this.
As part of one study Davidson did, he wanted to see if short-term meditators (those who had recently been taught mindfulness meditation) would show more antibodies after a flu shot than non-meditators, an indicator of the roll of stress in disease. The results showed that the short-term meditators did in fact have a better immune system as a result of their meditation.
In the course of his career, Davidson had an opportunity to meet with and speak to the Dalai Lama. He asked for and received permission to scan the brains of meditating monks, those he calls the “Olympians of meditation” to determine whether the enhanced neural structures he saw in short-term participants was present in long-term meditators as well. These long-meditators had between 10,000 and 94,000 hours of meditation practice, and their brains showed the same structures as the novice meditators, only thicker.
Some other of his findings include:
• Mindfulness training even for new meditators enhances the left prefrontal cortex, a marker for a more resilient person, and an improved ability to deal with stress.
• A more intense period of mindfulness training improves selective attention.
• Compassion meditation facilitates social intuition.
I found that 10,000 hour number interesting. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Outliers: The Story of Success, says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in any skill before the practitioner reaches what could be considered a professional level. That’s the equivalent of working 8 hours a day for 5 years.
During my working career as a wallpaper hanger, I remember very well when I had hung wallpaper for 10,000 hours. I had been subcontracted by a friend to hang wallpaper in a number of houses in Buffalo’s inner city as part of a HUD home improvement contract he had. It wasn’t a particularly positive work environment, and I wanted to finish the jobs as quickly as I could. On that particular day, everything clicked. I’d found my groove, and from that point on, I started seeing my work more as a challenge than a drudge.
So, I asked myself, “If I meditate for 20 minutes per day, how long would it take to get in those 10,000 hours?” The answer is a little more than 82 years. If I wanted to be one of those Olympian meditators, I’d have to up my game considerably. Not many of us can spend 8 hours a day for 5 years, or even 2 hours a day for 20 years meditating to achieve the level of the Dalai Lama’s monks. However, we don’t have to in order to get the benefits of meditation.
In January of this year, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported a study which showed that 27 minutes of daily meditation for 8 weeks is enough to produce observable thickening of gray matter in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. The study also showed a decrease in gray matter density in the amygdala, which plays a part in anxiety and stress – more gray matter equals more stress; less gray matter, lress.
Truly great news, but then meditators have long known that good things were happening to them. However, studies like these are welcome news, confirming what many of us have suspected or even recognized in our own minds. In the next several years, the evidence for the benefits of mindfulness meditation will not only be compelling, but overwhelming.
When you sit down and close your eyes, what does your brain do? Where does it go? Go ahead and give it a try. Mine generally goes twirling around. First I might think about why I’m closing my eyes? What’s for lunch? What do I need at the grocery store? Did I feed Charlie? Did I lock the door? I think and have read that this is totally normal or at least it’s what most of our minds do without doing any sort of “training” for our brain. That’s how I see mindfulness-reps for my brain. And as a result, my brain is stronger (so I’ve heard) but definitely more relaxed and focused.
I was in my doctor’s office the other day and decided to close my eyes and take a few minutes to get mindful. My first thought was trying to predict what my doctor would say. When I recognized that I was having a thought, I interjected another thought, which was, “back to breathing”. I went back to focusing on my breath then someone walked through the office door. I acknowledged a thought about that then I thought, “back to breathing”. I continued to do this until my name was called and I went in to see the doctor. As I waited in the next room, I did the same thing. This is how my mindfulness practice goes. I sit, close my eyes, breathe, be in my body and then my brain starts going. So, without judgment, I acknowledge the thoughts passing through and return to my breathing. By the way, the doctor did not say what I predicted he would say. Shocker, I know.
Sometimes I’m able to stay focused on my breath for more than five breaths but some days it’s one breath and then I need to redirect my brain. By doing this on a regular basis though, I have “trained” my brain to get to the quiet, relaxed, focused place a lot quicker. When I’m in that place, I feel patient and loving. When I’m in the rushing, anxious place, I feel uncomfortable. Each day it’s my choice, where do I want to go today?