An unexpected book arrived in the mail the other day. A gift from my friend’s at Wisdom Publications. Zen Master Raven: The Teachings of a Wise Old Bird. by Zen Master human form, Robert Aitken. Here the koans are told by and to animals of the forest: raven, porcupine, owl, woodpecker, badger, black bear, and […]
Mindfulness can bring our brains into an integrated state of harmony, balancing chaos on the one hand and rigidity on the other. This scientific wisdom is brought to us by neuroscientist, Dan Siegel, author of several important books, including the Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and his latest, The Mindful Therapist. The middle prefrontal cortex (a portion of the newest part of the brain evolution-wise, located behind your forehead) is critical to the following nine functions: 1. Bodily regulation. This is accomplished by regulating arousal and relaxation through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (think of the gas pedal and a brake in a car); 2. Attunement and being connected to others, or being “in tune.” Attunement sows the seeds of compassion; 3.Emotional balance refers to how we engage with experiences. It balances apathy on the one hand and feeling overwhelmed on the other. Like bodily regulation its a Goldliocks phenomenon, not too much and not too little. This is the optimal place where we find neural integration; 4. Response flexibility that refers to the pause that can develop between a stimulus and response. It really refers to the impulsive reactions that often occur in response to a stimulus. This pause comes from awareness and can help us to less impulsive and less destructive with what we say and do; 5. Downregulation of fear. This important feature is our ability to modulate the signals from the emotional brain that can often overwhelm us. This is accomplished through the development of inhibitory nerve fibers that go from the middle prefrontal cortex to structures like the amygdala in the emotional brain (limbic system); 6. Insight refers to what Siegel calls mental time travel or what we can call imagination. Mindfulness helps us to refine this capacity in the service living skillfully rather than being subjected the unregulated aspects of worry, regret, and self-criticism; 7. Empathy, or what Siegel calls “mindsight,” refers to our ability to take the perspective of the other; 8. Morality is also a function of the middle prefontal cortex and includes not just our ability to be moral in public settings but also in private; and finally 9. Intuition is the capacity to access the wisdom of the body by monitoring our bodily sensations. For example, a structure called the insula has map of the interior body and studies have found the insula gets thicker with meditation practice. Brain scientists such as Siegel and mindfulness researchers came up with this same list of functions independently. And it’s not just brain researchers, this list has been striven for in many spiritual traditions since ancient times. When we recognize the plasticity of the brain (that is, its capacity to change in response to experience) we can understand why we respond in certain situations the way that we do. Our previous conditioning will have us react in sometimes harmful ways. But it is the fault of conditioning. However, at the same time it is our responsibility (and potential) to change these conditionings through mindfulness and meditation.The middle prefrontal cortex develops optimally in an interpersonally attuned environment during infancy. Mindfulness provides the possibility of self-attunement to affect these same brain areas. So sit down and change your brain!