by Valerie Knopik | October 23, 2019 12:33 pm
There is growing research that mindfulness-based techniques, such as yoga and meditation, induce changes in brain structure and function. How can this happen? What are the underlying mechanisms? How can this behavior get ‘under the skin’ to affect our biology? Let’s take a quick look….think of this as the speed-dating version, because we could seriously spend a career delving into this cool stuff!
Luders and Kurth (2019) describe meditation as an active mental process that, when done repeatedly, regularly, and over longer periods of time, can change brain structure. This is due, in part, to the fact that meditation incorporates efforts to exercise awareness, attention, concentration, and focus. Yoga is a mind-body practice incorporating many of these same qualities alongside movement. There is accumulating evidence of positive effects on yoga on mental health, physical health, and well-being (Tolahunase et al., 2018). Going even further, a recent investigation examining all studies to date (or meta-analysis) suggest that mindful-based practices, such as yoga and meditation, hold promise as evidence-based treatment for mental health disorders, particularly depression (Goldberg et al., 2018). I think that this is something that we, as yoga practitioners have ‘felt’ for a long time and I love that, as a mental health researcher, there is now some evidence to back up our experiential claims.
Diving just a bit deeper……A recent review by Tang et al (2015) in Nature Reviews Neuroscience discusses possible mechanisms that lend further support to these processes. They suggest that one possibility is engaging the brain in mindfulness affects brain structure by inducing dendritic branching, synaptogenesis, myelinogenesis or even adult neurogenesis – all super cool brain changes we tend to lump together under the umbrella term of ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the central nervous system (CNS) to adapt and reorganize its structure and function in response to internal or external stimuli and manifests at both biological and clinical levels. You may have heard the phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” and this is a general underlying principle of neuroplasticity. Yoga and meditation teach us to slow down, notice, be aware, and (hopefully) be non-reactive. By practicing these behaviors over and over, we are reinforcing these positive neural pathways making them the ‘default’ pathway. In other words, we have the capacity to change the way our neurons (brain cells) connect with one another! We can actually, through mindful awareness, reinforce positive neural connections!
Relatedly, research also suggests that mindfulness positively affects autonomic nervous system regulation and immune activity (think stress response!), which may result in neuronal preservation, restoration and/or inhibition of apoptosis (aka cell death). We know, experientially, that mindfulness-based techniques are highly effective in stress reduction, and it now appears possible that such stress reduction may also mediate changes in brain function (Tang et al., 2019).
If you don’t already have a yoga or mindfulness practice, here are some simple tips to get you started on changing those neuronal connections:
I don’t know about you, but I’m sold. Well, I was already sold. But if I wasn’t, I would be! Even though we, as scientists, as still exploring these underlying mechanisms, I find it so powerful (and super cool!) that we have these initial results that suggest we have the capacity to change our internal landscape …. What about you?
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