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Mindfulness – Mood, Motivation and the Brain

Mindfulness – Mood, Motivation and Neuroscience

Mindfulness prefrontal asymemetry depression anxiety
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that mindfulness brings about a range of positive changes to the brain. Moreover, mindfulness can create lasting positive brain traits – positive and lasting changes to our brains. One area of research concerns the effect of mindfulness on mood and motivation and the way in which this correlates with activation in the right and left prefrontal cortex.

Prefrontal Cortex Asymmetry – Approach vs Withdrawal Motivation

Professor Richard Davidson from the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Madison Wisconsin has studied Left vs Right Prefrontal Cortex activation for decades. He has shown that heightened activity in the Left Prefrontal Cortex correlates enhanced perception and problem-solving and positive mood. This has been termed the ‘approach mode’ of mind.  In contrast, he has shown that heightened activity in the Right Prefrontal Cortex correlates with anger, stress and lowered motivation. This has been called the ‘withdrawal mode’ of mind or ‘avoidance mode’. Remarkably, Davidson was able to show that mindfulness practice could enhance Left Prefrontal Cortex activation and reduce Right Prefrontal Cortex activation. This effect is seen both long-term meditators and also people who have just completed an 8-week mindfulness course.

Brain Activity and Mood

Davidson pioneered research using fMRI scanning, EEG recording, and thermal imaging of the brains of both long and short-term meditators. He has proved that mindfulness meditation not only positively affects brain function but also produces enduring brain traits.

In earlier research and clinical observation Davidson had noticed the effect on patients of damage to the left or right prefrontal cortex (PFC). Patients with damage to the left PFC were unable to experience joy. Patients with damage to the right PFC were indifferent to injury. Using neurological scanning coupled with mood evaluation reports he showed that people who are more joyful, energized, enthusiastic and alert show heightened activity in the LEFT PFC. Conversely people who showed heightened activity in the right PFC were commonly are prone to worry anxiety and sadness.

The Effects of Mindfulness Training on Highly Experienced Meditators

Davidson then conducted research on very long-term meditators – monks with tens of thousands of hours of meditation practice experience. He found that the levels of gamma wave activation in the left PFC of these monks was ‘off the scale’.  Not only did the monks show vastly more left PFC activation while meditating but their ‘emotional set point’, the ratio of left and right PFC activation was greatly tipped to the left even when they were not meditating.

Heightened perception and problem solving are associated with increased gamma wave activity in the left PFC is also associated with high mental performance . Gamma waves are associated with the formation of ideas, language and memory processing, and various types of learning. So here was evidence that mindfulness training created enduring brain traits both in terms of emotional experience and in terms of performance.

The Effects of Mindfulness on 8-Week Course Attendees

What is perhaps even more remarkable is that practicing mindfulness daily for 8-weeks can also produce an enduring shift of PFC activation from right to left. In collaboration with John Kabat-Zinn – creator of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Davidson conducted research on a group of employees from a company called Promega. Promega is a high-pressure biotech business based in Wisconsin. Prior to the study many of the employees complained of feeling highly stressed. On inspection, their PFC functioning was shown to be tipped on average significantly towards greater right PFC activation.

Kabat-Zinn then led the employees in an 8-week MBSR course, teaching them how to meditate for 45 minutes per day and how to use mindfulness in daily life. Afterwards the participants reported that their moods had improved, that they felt less anxious, more energised and more able to engage in their work. Similarly, the neurological analysis that Davidson was conducting on the participants revealed, not surprisingly, a shift towards greater left PFC activation.

Enduring Brain Traits

What is again perhaps even more impressive is that even in tests at a four-month follow up after the course. The shift in the ration of right to left PFC activation was still detected. Participants also reported they were less irritable and more able to manage situations that could have provoked stress.
Remarkably, Davidson and Kabat-Zinn were also able to demonstrate that the mindfulness training also enhanced the immune systems of the course participants. Participants were given flu jabs after the course and they showed higher levels of antibodies produced in response compared with the control group who didn’t do the mindfulness training.



Antoine Lutz, Lawrence L. Greischar, Nancy B. Rawlings, Matthieu Ricard, and Richard J. Davidson. Long-Term Meditators Self-Induce high-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Davidson, R.J,  Kabat-Zinn, J.,  Schumacher J., Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003

Eddie Harmon-Jones, Philip A. Gable, Carly K. Peterson,
The role of asymmetric frontal cortical activity in emotion-related phenomena:
A review and update. (2009) Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University.

Is Mindfulness for Me or Is It Just a Fad?

Mindfulness is increasingly referred to in the mainstream media these days. Mindfulness is being taught in a wide range of contexts and new books and articles about it emerge on a pretty much weekly basis. There is now even an All Party Parliamentary Group which has made recommendations on the implementation of mindfulness training programs in education, business, and healthcare settings and also in the criminal justice system. Mindfulness is even being taught to MPs in Parliament.

Is mindfulness really a cure for all ills then? Is it the answer to all of life’s problems?  The answer of course has to be ‘No’. It isn’t a ‘magic bullet’. There are other questions that might be more helpful to ask though. Could mindfulness help me in my current life situation? Could it help me calm down my busy mind? Could it help me feel less like I’m being pulled in different directions and instead help me enjoy life more? The answer to these questions is that it probably could – that is, it probably could help you do what you already do more easily,  more wholeheartedly and with more satisfaction and less stress.

Mindfulness is nothing new. I like to say that everyone (perhaps with the exception of some of the world’s most extreme dictators) has some experience of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a particular quality of attentiveness. It is a way of being that we can sometimes find ourselves in such as, for example, when we are absorbed in a hobby or work task in such a way that other distractions don’t ‘grab’ our attention. At these times we can feel satisfyingly emmersed in what we are doing. Is that your experience most of the time? I suspect not. If you’re anything like me, or most of the other seven billion people we share the planet with, much of the time attention gets ‘caught’. It gets caught by passing thoughts, concerns, preoccupations, or perhaps even worries. Without practicing mindfulness this magnetic pull of habitual thinking can take over much of the day, leaving us mentally ruminating about the same kinds of things and reacting to events in familiar of ways. This can leave us with the same kinds of vague uneasy feelings day after day without us really understanding why.

The practice of mindfulness, however, involves stepping back into this very moment with a heightened but ‘non-judgemental’ awareness of our direct experience ‘right here right now’. When we learn to open directly to what is actually here in this moment we can find that there is an ‘aliveness’ and beauty in the most ordinary experiences – the shapes and colours around us, or the feeling of our fingers touching cloth or objects. Sometimes even listening to ambient sounds can help us feel more ‘centred’ – the whir of a fan or gentle rattle of distant activity outside on the street. Coming back to our direct experience in this way can sometimes be like waking up from a dream. Here we are, right here, right now, and life turns out to be more vivid and rich than we’d realised.

More than that though, mindfulness can help us notice the ways in which we add so much unnecessary ‘drama’ to the life events we face. So much of the time, the way that we interpret what happens in our lives adds a huge amount of unnecessary distress on top of the simplicity of ordinary experiences- even the unpleasant ones. Something goes wrong: you don’t get that job you worked so hard to apply for; or a friend’s child has an accident; or you get given an extra task at work on top of an already unmanageable workload. What can happen next is that we get almost paralysed, or wound up, by a series of negative thoughts about the situation.

Yet in any given situation, what is happening ‘right here right now’ is likely to be very simple – thoughts, emotions, sensations and choices of action. When we step into the present moment we can learn to meet these ‘non-judgmentally’ and respond more effectively to what IS actually happening rather than worrying about all the implications and possible consequences of what we are expriencing – most of which never come to pass. Many of these ruminations are also based on wrong interpretations about what we are experiencing or on unfounded assumptions.

When we practice mindfulness we can learn that our thoughts often aren’t facts – that they often aren’t accurate – and also that emotions and even physical sensations change and pass. Without us adding layer upon layer of ‘reaction’ most difficulties pass in their own time. In contrast, it’s often our very attempts to think our way out of situations that make our stress and unease continue long after the original event is long gone. How many times have you found yourself running over, in your mind, a situation or argument for days on end – a situation that has in fact already long since passed?

This isn’t to belittle the difficulties we sometimes face. Many people have serious challenges in their lives. Most of us will at some point – life is like that. Nevertheless, it is possible for us, as human beings, to open to even the most painful or challenging experiences and meet them with sensitivity, wisdom and self-respect, rather than always mentally battling them or ourselves – or avoiding them (which makes them worse) with the anaesthetic of TV, alcohol, ‘workaholism’ or any of the other distractions that the world has to offer us. That’s not to say that some of our less helpful ways of coping are bad or wrong – sometimes they can be helpful in the short term. But we all know that sticking our heads in the sand by running to the fridge or the TV or whatever we do can’t be a long term solution to finding happiness.

When we make an active choice to open to our life experience using mindfulness  (little by little and only to the extent that feels manageable) we are reclaiming our lives. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says “Mindfulness … restores us to our wholeness”. For this we don’t need to add anything, become anything, improve ourselves, meet our targets or live up to our expectations. We simply need to learn to gently open to this moment as it is – in a way that we probably automatically did as small children but have simply forgotten how to.

Anyone who has tried practicing mindfulness will know that this is easier said than done! This is why setting time aside to actively learn how to practice mindfulness with some guidance (or more acurately to learn how to stop being unmindful) can be so helpful.

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