With K. Neal Hughes, M.A. LSPE NCC
There is a science to all of this, and in the absence of science there really is nothing to any of it. How would lasting changes occur in anyone unless neurology was involved? It is my contention that unless spiritual practice touches neurology then no change occurs at all. Fortunately for us the practices of mindfulness and related meditation practices do indeed affect neurology and can do so with relative permanence. I say “relative permanence” because in point of fact nothing which changes can ever be truly permanent. But once a “state” becomes a “trait” then returning to where you were before may actually be difficult.
The scientific explorations of numerous scientists have identified areas of the brain directly affected by the practice of mindfulness, and a brief summary may be very helpful here. For our purposes we will refer often to the work of Daniel Siegel, eminent researcher in the areas of the developing brain, interpersonal neurobiology, and attachment. He is also a practicing psychiatrist.
In Dr. Siegel’s work with a young woman with damage to a particular part of her brain (the prefrontal cortex) he identified 9 neurological functions associated with that region. These functions, interestingly enough, were discovered to be activated by the practice of mindfulness. Could this be the neurological link between mind and heart so often sought in spiritual texts? Could this be the how of personal spiritual transformation? Let us begin to try and answer these questions.
What is so important about the prefrontal cortex?
Here is Daniel Siegel:
The prefrontal areas coordinate and balance input from the cortex, limbic, brainstem, and bodily regions as these are connected even to the input from other brains (that is, other people). In this way, the prefrontal cortex integrates social, somatic, brainstem, limbic, and cortical systems all into one functional whole.
(Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind, 2012, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., p. 22 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY)
The nine functions of the pre-frontal cortex, according to Daniel Siegel:
1. Body Regulation — Functions of the body such as heart rate, respiration and digestion that are controlled by the nervous system.
2. Attunement — When we attune to others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another.
3. Emotional Balance — Even the healthiest person may be temporarily thrown off and feel out of balance but the middle pre-frontal region functions to bring us back to equilibrium. The ability to stay focused on the inside when the storms of life are raging on the outside.
4. Response Flexibility — This ability to pause before responding is an important part of emotional and social intelligence.
5. Empathy — The capacity to create mindsight images of other people’s minds. These you-maps enable us to sense the internal mental stance of another person, not just to attune to their state of mind.
6. Self-Knowing — Mental time travel in which we connect the past to the present and the anticipated future.
7. Fear Extinction — After experiencing a frightening event, we may come to feel fear in the face of a similar situation. But the middle prefrontal region has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area and make it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-create amygdala.
8. Intuition — Can be seen as how the pre-frontal cortex gives us access to the wisdom of the body. This region receives information from throughout the interior of the body, including the viscera (heart, intestines) and uses this input to give us a “heart felt sense” of what to do or a “gut feeling” about the right choice.
9. Morality — Moral reasoning seems to require the integrative capacity of the pre-frontal cortex to sense the emotional meaning of present challenges and to override immediate impulses in order to create moral action in response to challenges.
(The Mindful Brain. Daniel Siegel, 2007, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, pp 42-44)
Various brain functions have been observed to be involved when mindfulness is practiced. Regions of the anterior cortex, prefrontal cortex, right anterior cingulate are some of them (Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness, NeuroReport, volume 16(17), 28 November, pp1893-18970.)
Andrew Newberg in his book How God Changes Your Brain summarized the research literature to say that meditation has been observed to affect the functions of the limbic system, the anterior cingulate, the parietal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, and increases levels of dopamine, GABA, and serotonin — all affects are to the good — and lowers the levels of stress hormones while the distress producing narrative functioning of the frontal lobes were quieted.
Experiences of peace, happiness, and security are produced and experiences of anger, depression, and stress are reduced. Moreover, the goal of these meditation practices is not just the development of a solipsistic “happiness”, if that were even possible.
The goal is the development of virtues, the highest of them being compassion. Without this there is no happiness whether one is a Christian, a Sufi Muslim, Buddhist, or an atheist.
Anger, aggression, violence is definitely not part of the equation. In fact, these negative emotions have been shown to damage certain brain functions as well as well-being, and interpersonal relationships.
K. Neal Hughes is a psychotherapist at Thriveworks Knoxville.