Mindfulness – Mood, Motivation and Neuroscience
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. https://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/monksmedstudy.pdf
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.