Just like a workout, a person can train their brain, improving regions associated with learning, memory, regulating emotions, perspective and more.
A study by the Harvard Medical School investigated what happens to the grey matter of the brain before and after a person takes part in a mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MSBR). MBSR is a rigorous program involving focused attention and awareness training achieved through a variety of seated and lying down exercises and the mindfulness of everyday activities.
Participants spent eight weeks training their brain, and practicing mindfulness throughout their day for an average of 30 minutes. The results are impressive.
This study joins an extensive body of research that shows a person can train their brain to increase their psychological health and well-being. Just like a muscle, repeatedly activating areas of the brain through focused attention training increases grey matter and improves the networks of neural systems. It doesn’t just grow your brain, it strengthens it too.
Researchers found that completing these focused attention and awareness exercises significantly impacted the hippocampus, the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and the cerebellum.
What do these parts of the brain do?
The hippocampus improves regulating emotional responses, the consolidation of information for short- and long-term memory, and spatial navigation. Meanwhile, a decrease in the density or volume of the hippocampus is linked to pathological conditions like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
The TPJ involves social cognition, the awareness of the desires, intentions and goals of other people. So training the TPJ increased feelings of compassion.
The PCC plays an important role in referencing your self, like remembering the past and thinking about the future, as well as conceiving the viewpoint of others.
The cerebellum affects sensory perception, coordination, and motor control. But it also plays a crucial role regulating behaviors. The cerebellum influences the speed, capacity, and consistency of emotion and cognition as well as their social appropriateness. A hindered cerebellum often leads to a host of behavioral abnormalities including anxiety, depression and sleep dysfunction.
All these areas saw improved density and structural changes. What’s more, it seems to stay that way. Structural changes in the hippocampus were detectable eight weeks following the end of the study. So the improvements last even after the training ends.
The study builds on a large body of research that shows attention training, meditation and other mindfulness-based interventions benefit the mind. Mindfulness improves a person’s well-being while reducing the symptoms of disorders like anxiety, depression, and more.