If brain chemistry can affect thoughts and behaviors, can thoughts and behaviors affect brain chemistry and perhaps even rewire the brain?
An accumulating body of evidence supports the notion that non-medical interventions – especially mindfulness – can create changes in the body and brain that help reduce distress and improve brain function in a variety of ways.
Some of the most interesting projects have explored the use of mindfulness practices to reduce stress and depression and improve attention. Several fascinating studies have explored the minds of “experts” in meditation – a form of mindfulness – and clearly show they have strong neuro-circuitry in areas of emotional regulation and feelings of compassion.
A recent study in the journal Neuroimage entitled “Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training on Intrinsic Brain Connectivity” (Kilpatrick et al., 2011 Feb 17) involved a group of healthy women who were trained for eight weeks in mindfulness meditation skills compared to a group that did not participate in the training. Functional MRI studies at the end of the eight weeks showed “increased functional connectivity” between various areas of the brain in the women who studied mindfulness. The training changed the brain in ways thought to relate to how the brain pays attention and how it processes sensory information.
Some studies have examined the effects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that have similarly suggested brain changes that occur in response to therapy and are related to improving symptoms.
Our feelings and behaviors are the results of complex and constantly evolving interactions of our genetic patterns and the environment acting on those patterns. The environment includes all things that affect us – physical and social/emotional stresses are all part of the story. What we need to keep in mind is that the environmental effects on our systems are just as “biological” as any medication or surgical procedure, and they may affect the brain in positive ways as well as negative.
Nurture is nature; our biological makeup evolves as we interact with the world around us. So the work of helping ourselves feel better involves looking at all the possible ways of creating beneficial changes in the nervous system – from medicine to food to exercise to light to various types of therapies and practices such as mindfulness and beyond.
Come back on Thursday to read guest blogger Shamash Alidina’s post, “Using Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder.” Shamash Alidina is author of Mindfulness For Dummies.”
If you’ve had any sort of mindfulness training, please share your experiences and insights.
Also on Psych Central, “How to Be Mindful and Have More Positivity,” by Joe Wilner.
Photo by Dierk Schaefer, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 23 Apr 2011