That’s one thing I can’t afford to happen – my brain getting smaller and thicker. It reached its peak in both respects years ago. So before I entered the enlightened world of mindfulness, I dug deep into science to see if this ridiculous headline is true.
Spoiler alert – it is.
So quickly, open your lids, un-zen yourself and read on.
Corticolimbic, and other fancy words
The other day, I dropped my phone in the toilet before flushing and, twist the knife, when I reached over, the toilet roll hung paperless from its hook. I felt an instant neuroplastic change in my corticolimbic circuits. My amygdala went into overdrive to cope with the situation and my prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree.
My brain was trying and failing to handle stress.
The amygdala is your stress management system. You need it to be your friend. It consists of two almond shaped areas on either side of the brain – they control your ‘fight or flight’ response.
Your senses are constantly dumping information through the thalamus and onward to the amygdala and the neocortex. The neocortex is the thinking part of your brain. If the amygdala decides this information is a ‘fight or flight’ situation, it hijacks your rational side and your brain gets all emotional. You don’t think – you just react.
This is good when you see a herd of woolly mammoth coming round a sharp bend, but not particularly useful in our modern, cosy lives. I was stressed when my phone plopped into the toilet, but I wasn’t impaled on the tusk of a woolly mammoth – so a little less emotion would have been nice. Although my amygdala did kicked in again later when I phoned the insurance company.
How does mindfulness fit into this? Mindfulness is associated with decreased grey matter volume in the right amygdala. A smaller amygdala reacts less aggressively to stress stimuli, which leads to reduced reaction to anxiety and fear.
Mindfulness also weakens the connection between the amygdala and other regions of the brain, so the crazy primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.
And there’s more good news.
You’re getting thicker
That’s not a summary of my school report – it’s what mindfulness can do to you. In several different studies, mindfulness increased cortical thickness in certain regions of the brain:
- The hippocampus – which assists learning, cognition and memory
- The posterior cingulate – mind wandering and self-relevance
- The temporo parietal junction – perspective taking, empathy and compassion
Increased cortical thickness in these areas of the brain improves memory, empathy and several other higher brain functions.
Having a thicker brain that communicates weakly with a smaller amygdala seems to be an evolutionary step in the right direction.
But how long do we have to commit to mindfulness to achieve this?
In most studies, the participants meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks. This caused a measureable effect in grey matter density and a noticeable reduction in the size of the amygdala.
If this seems like a long time, start off with 10 minutes and build up. Tonight, switch off the TV, download a suitable app and aeroplane mode the kids. Relax. Feel your brain getting smaller and thicker.