#40 Mindful Human Series: Part III - Your Brain & Mindfulness

Mar 15, 2020


In Part II of the Mindful Human series, we practiced getting in touch with our Anchor Breath.  If you didn’t get the chance to practice or listen to part two, you can check out episode #38 “Part II Mindful Human series: Why Practicing Mindfulness is Necessary”. Visit shiftforwellness.com/#38. There you can read the blog post or listen to the podcast and you can also download the free Shift for Wellness workbook I have waiting there for you so you can get right to work on creating a world of wellness for yourself. 

Today I’m going to be sharing with you Part III of the Mindful Human series: "Your Brain and Mindfulness”. 

If you’re new to the series and starting with Part III first, you’ll want to know in this 4 part four series on being a Mindful Human, I share with you: What Mindfulness Is and what it isn’t, Why It’s Necessary, I talk about neurobiology and the part the brain plays during mindfulness, and finally, we’ll establish The Role of the Mindful Human. 

Embedded in each part, you will learn the basics for each topic, you’ll begin to establish your own personal practice as you play with exercises that I’ve woven throughout each podcast, and I’m confident that you’ll feel confident enough to share what you’ve learned in each part so you can spread the wellness wealth and help me fill our world up with more mindful humans. 

When Chaos Is All Around

With everything that we’re experiencing in our world today, I can’t think of a better opportunity to share the practice of mindfulness.  Folks, this is the moment, the prime occasion for putting what you’re learning into play to prevent you from going off the rails and keeping a level head while chaos is all around you.  

I’m excited for you to read on about how you can make this practice of paying attention, having compassion, tuning into yourself by becoming aware of your senses, and being without judgment, an easy, simple little slice of your life. 

Mindful Listening

Let’s take this opportunity to practice some mindfulness before we go any further.  Let’s begin with Mindful Listening. There are many things that we can learn to be mindful of. Today we are going to practice being mindful of sound. 

Please get into your mindful bodies, Become still, quiet, relaxed, and upright, and bring your awareness to your breath. If you’re not able to sit up and lying down is your only option, be sure not to allow yourself to fall asleep! That will be your challenge.

Now put all your attention into hearing; just listen.

What do you hear in the room you’re in? Pay attention. Notice and name what you hear.  Don’t judge.  

Bring your attention to outside your room.  What sounds do you hear? If your kids are making noise or the TV is too loud in the other room, don’t judge, someone else in your home is enjoying the present moment.  You can too, by simply stating what you hear.

How about outside the building you are in?  Can you tune in a little deeper and hear sounds from the outdoors?  What do you notice?

Slowly and mindfully move your hand to your anchor spot and feel your breathing. I’m going to ring the bell one final time.  I want you to put all your attention on the chime and keep your eyes closed until you no longer hear the ringing.

Just breathing in and just breathing out. What do you notice?

We can also listen carefully to any sound. There are lots of sounds around you all the time. If you listen very carefully, you might hear things you don’t normally hear. 

Before we get into talking about all the benefits the Mindfulness practice has on us, I want to remind you that I am making no claims to being an expert on mindfulness. I came to the practice because I saw a need for it in my classroom. I educated myself on it and continue to do so by taking courses, I read about it extensively, I continue to work to develop my own practice, and I teach the practice to my students and encourage them daily to develop their own practice as I’ve been formally trained to do in the Mindfulness curriculum through Mindful Schools.

Look, we are all learning every day, taking in new information at work, at home, and crazy new things that are developing in our world.  We are constantly learning and growing and in order for our brains to begin to take in and process that new information, it needs to be prepared. There is a certain preparation process that needs to be in place in order for new information to get into our long-term memory so we can recall it again when we need it.  Mindfulness is one way to allow for that preparedness to happen.

Just like any other task we’re getting ready to do, like something as simple as cleaning the house, the house can’t be cleaned unless everything in it is in some kind of order. Clothes and toys need to be picked up off the floor and put away in drawers so rugs can be vacuumed and floors can be swept and mopped. Freeing countertops from pots, pans, and dishes allows for them to be wiped down and disinfected really well.  The oven has to be free from food and the racks so it can be properly cleaned inside.  

Before we set out to do a task, certain things need to be in place if we intend to get the most out of the experience.  So when we’re considering the process of learning, of taking in new information on any level, the practice of mindfulness helps to prepare the brain to absorb the information and get it to where it needs to go so that it can be retrieved when it needs to be.

Mindfulness and the Brain

The fight, flight, or freeze response, is our sympathetic nervous system in action. When we're in this state it doesn’t make it possible for our brains to absorb any new information. The parts of our brain that process information are shut off because the brain and body perceive a threat. The brain and the body now have only one goal and that’s to keep us safe and get us out of harm’s way.   The brain during this time is not capable of processing any new information.

Think about a student who has test anxiety or is in the middle of some drama with friends, or what about the adult who is experiencing trauma at home or is managing an ailment of some kind. They are operating from the state of fight, flight, or freeze. Whatever new information is being taught in the classroom or whatever skill is being taught on the job is not being absorbed and processed in their brains because their brain has not been prepared to do so.

Don’t let the kind and gentle name of this system fool you, the sympathetic nervous system is our body’s response to stress.  MindfulSchools.org, which is where I set the foundation for my mindfulness education, states that learning is dependent on our neurobiology.  In order to be able to take in and process information and get it into our long-term memory, our nervous system needs to be in a focused and receptive state.  That focused and receptive state is known as our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest and digest mode that our bodies treasure.

When operating from the fight or flight response, it’s not possible to access high-level decision-making.  So whether you are ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred, practicing mindfulness allows for the prefrontal cortex to come back online if it’s been shut down, which allows for communication skills like conflict resolution, empathy and compassion to be executed, as well as awaking executive functioning skills like focus and concentration, managing impulse control, self-awareness, decreasing stress and anxiety, managing difficult emotions, and gaining a sense of calm.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is located in the front of the brain and is responsible for executive functioning.  This is the part of the brain that allows us to pay attention, regulate emotional balance, and regulate our bodies. Research by Dr. Dan Siegel indicates that 9 factors appear to be dependent on the regulating function of the prefrontal cortex. 

These 9 factors translate into 9 Aspects of Well Being that can be developed through the practice of mindfulness.  These aspects are essentially 9 components of good mental health as Dr. Greg Popcak writes about in an online article published in 2015 where he highlights Dr. Seigel’s work in his book  Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology.” W. W. Norton, 2012. 

1) Bodily regulation – a state of coordination and balance between the brakes and accelerator of the nervous system. Too much “braking” leads to under-arousal, sleepiness, and rigidity; too much “acceleration” results in chaotic energy. When our bodies are regulated, our level of alertness and energy is appropriate to the setting.

2) Insight – “self-knowing awareness.” Our sense of ourselves creates a coherent life story by connecting present awareness, our life story, and images of the future. This is key to building positive social connections. Also known as “autonoetic consciousness,” this function creates memories that contain emotional texture.

3) Attuned communication with others – “resonance.” This involves the coordination of input from another’s mind with the activity of our own: receiving signals from another and allowing our state to be influenced by theirs. This leads to the other person’s experience of “feeling felt,” of being understood. When we become more “tuned in” to ourselves, the ability to tune in to others is enhanced

4) Empathy – builds upon insight into ourselves, and upon attuned communication with others (#2 and #3 above). Empathy enables us to see from the stance of another person’s mind, imagining others’ reality and perspective. Our brains are designed to enable us to imagine what might be going on inside someone else, and this ability can be cultivated.

5) Emotional balance or regulation – an emotional experience that is appropriately activated, so life has vitality and meaning. When emotions are overactive, we become overwhelmed and emotionally chaotic; when emotions are not active, we may experience stagnation or depression, a sense that our life is not meaningful.

6) Fear modulation – our ability to calm and soothe, and even unlearn, our own fears.

7) Response flexibility – the capacity to pause before taking action; being able to consider a variety of possible options, and to choose among them; the flexibility to move beyond habitual response, with a sense of spaciousness of mind and possibility.

8) Intuition – access to awareness of the wisdom of the body, particularly the complex neuronal webs around the viscera, and the hollow organs including the heart and intestines. These areas constitute a separate “brain” that processes information and experiences learns, and makes decisions. This intuitive intelligence can inform, and influence, our reasoning.

9) Morality – taking into consideration the larger picture, imagining and acting on what is best for the larger group rather than just for ourselves – and doing this even when we are alone.

After current and further research is completed, it’s likely that a tenth item will be added to this list: The Quality of Gratitude. (MindfulSchools.org)

What’s being said here is those 9 aspects that are dependent upon the proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex, and because the practice of mindfulness activates our parasympathetic nervous system and allows the brain to be in a focused and receptive state, the prefrontal cortex is then able to do its job by carrying out these 9 aspects.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is located in the limbic system in the brain which has a lot to do with our behavior. It has a small almond-like share and is part of the brain that emerged in the first mammals as it records experiences and emotions. It is the emotional center of the brain.  It’s also responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. When we are focused and balanced, everything becomes easier, and therefore, mindfulness is a big help in the areas of:

  • concentrating
  • learning
  • sleeping
  • making better decisions
  • being less reactive

We become more self-aware as we grow the ability to self-regulate.  As we grow these abilities, we naturally become more compassionate towards ourselves, others, and the environment.

The Hippocampus 

is the part of our brain that is responsible for memory, which is also a part of the limbic system. We know stress inhibits the storing of information and the recalling of information.  Storing and recalling information is what we are being asked to do all throughout our day as we learn new information in our classrooms, in the workforce, and at home.  Simply put, mindfulness improves memory by working to eliminate stress in the body.

If you’ve been listening to my podcasts from the beginning, you’ve heard me speak about the belly being your second brain.  I did not come up with this idea, it’s something I’ve learned throughout my somatic studies. 

Let’s run through a Brain/Belly experience.  This is an exercise I learned in one of my Mindful School classes and it’s a great physiological example of how your thoughts have a direct impact on the functions of your body.

  • First, turn your attention to the trunk of your body: your inner chest and belly. Are you aware of any physical sensations in that area?? If so, make a note of them.
  • Next, imagine this situation: You’re sitting at your desk, writing an email message to send to your best friend. The message is about your coworker, a person you’ve been having a lot of trouble with. In the email, you pour out your opinions and judgments about the co-worker. You leave nothing out and you are detailed! Then, you hit send. And immediately realize that you’ve just sent the email to the coworker you’re so upset about, by mistake.  

Quick, check out your chest and belly. Are you aware of sensations there now? If so, note them.

Shake off that story.  

Give This A Try

  • Think of a person for whom you feel sincere gratitude. This person may be living, or not; maybe someone you’ve known personally or someone you know only through their work, such as an author or a famous figure. You are very grateful to have this person in your life. Imagine the person clearly. See their face, feel their presence. Take some time to imagine them vividly. Then, in your imagination, tell them how grateful you are for them.  Turn your attention to your chest and belly. Are you aware of any sensations? If so, notice what they are.

You may have felt some intense sensations in your body during these exercises. Imagining that you’ve missent an email might create a hot pit of dread in your belly.  This is your third chakra known as the solar plexus which is your power center. It may have signaled to you the feeling of fear or dread. In turn, thinking about someone you’re grateful for may have brought up a sensation of warmth in the area of the heart, or movement in the lungs, perhaps signaling love or joy. 

Internal sensations like these are an important part of our emotional life – and our emotional life is central to every aspect of life. Sensations in the chest and abdomen are also a source of our intuition, which is an aspect of our being that we can fine-tune and pay attention to.   Intuition, the ability to sense or know something immediately without thinking about it, is a skill that can be taught.  

So how does this all relate to the brain? I’m going to use my notes from Mindful School to explain this part to you because this is the part where science really kicks in.

Neuron cells are basic units of the nervous system. Neurons aren’t found only in the brain and nervous system. There is a network of neurons that surround our hollow internal organs, which are known as the “visceral organs” or “viscera”. Among the viscera are the heart, lungs, stomach, and liver. They are located in the trunk of the body.

Wisdom, Intelligence, & Gut Reactions

The neural network surrounding the viscera has its own perceptions, which flow to the highest part of the brain. With their own neural highway to the prefrontal cortex, perceptions make an important contribution to human wisdom and intelligence. The mind and body are vitally interconnected.

Each person’s visceral response to life events is different. To recognize the significance of their visceral sensations, people must become familiar with their own “gut wisdom.” These organs can signal a wide variety of emotions, such as joy, desire, fear, or anger. It can sense and communicate stress. Sensations from the gut can indicate to us whether an environment is safe, may suggest whether a certain person is trustworthy, or offer insights into whether a certain decision is right for us – and so much more. The “thinking brain” can then use this visceral information from the heart and belly to inform thoughts, feelings, and actions.

So now how does this all lead back to the practice of mindfulness?  Visceral sensations can alert us to emotions or impulses as they begin to arise. This awareness provides us with greater response flexibility. We can pause before taking action, consider a variety of possible options for response, and choose among those options. These are the types of practices mindfulness affords us when we work to make it a habit.

Here's An Example

Anger often manifests as a visceral sensation before a person consciously knows they are angry. A burning sensation may shoot through the truck of the body as a reaction to a situation.  When the sensation first appears, it may or may not be subtle. It can quickly escalate in intensity to the point where the person feels overcome with emotion and isn’t thinking clearly. Out of that intense state, the person probably won’t respond in a mindful manner. No space has been created for considering options. 

On the other hand, if through the continued practice of mindfulness, the person becomes aware of the anger’s early appearance, they can gain more flexibility in their actions and move toward responding by pausing to consider options to manage the situation. This is a key part of appropriate self-regulation. 

The right and left sides of the brain also have a part to play here. The right half of the brain, called the right hemisphere, holds an integrated map of the whole body. It is the right side of the brain that takes the lead in perceiving those visceral sensations. The left side of the brain, the left hemisphere, deals with linguistics and logic. When an emotion is felt in the body it registers in the right side of the brain first and then that emotion is labeled by the left side.  Now we have the right and left brain working together; they’re integrated. An outcome of this hemispheric integration is that emotions, when labeled, appear to lose some of their intensity and power. Which is good for decision-making when one is overwhelmed and desperate or overjoyed and delirious. When these two parts of the brain are working together, and the practice of mindfulness is implemented, the opportunity to pause and respond presents itself allowing us to make more sound decisions when we're in a negative state or a state where we’re being delusionally optimistic. 

What Research Says

A research study at UCLA asked subjects to look at an image of a distressed face. The subjects’ amygdalas became activated. When they were asked to name the gender of the person with the distressed face, nothing changed. When they were asked to “name the emotion” they saw, the amygdala was no longer activated, but the prefrontal cortex became activated. Remember the amygdala registers emotions, including distress, and the prefrontal cortex, is our decision-maker and problem-solver. This result demonstrates naming an emotion and easing the emotion. This is an important way mindfulness practice can serve us. We can become aware of an emotion as it first arises, and label it. Then, with the prefrontal cortex activated and with an integrated brain, and with the emotion eased, we can choose what to do – and what not to do.

In addition, mindful awareness of our own visceral responses can help increase our empathy for others. We can consider how another person might be feeling, by imagining being in their situation. When we check how our own body and mind respond to being “in those shoes”, we may be able to imagine how the other person is feeling. This is the basis for empathy, another aspect of well-being. When we’re aware of our own challenge in attaining a flexible way of dealing with emotional responses, we may have more empathy for another.

Positive Chemical Outcomes

The practice of mindfulness aids in the release of positive chemical outcomes in the body. How we feel about our situation, how we perceive what we are experiencing, triggers the release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. When we’re in a state of relaxation, our dopamine and oxytocin levels tend to rise. Dopamine supports motivation and curiosity, and our motivation to learn and remember. Oxytocin supports feelings of peacefulness and relaxation and nurturing behavior towards others and ourselves. 

Simultaneously, while in this relaxed state, adrenaline and cortisol decrease. These stress hormones ready us for “fight, flight, or freeze.” I’m afraid many of us are walking around all day long in this fight, flight, or freeze mode and our bodies can’t afford to have that happen. 

Both the brain stem and the amygdala are among the organs involved with the release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are needed for our survival, for the day we meet that bear in the woods, but they’re certainly not needed, nor wanted, when we’re getting ready for work in the morning!   

Interfering With The Learning Process

Sadly, with the pressures of life today, we often live with high levels of these chemicals in our bodies, even when our lives are not in danger. I see evidence of this in the students I teach EVERY DAY! These chemicals profoundly interfere with the process of learning and remembering. In particular, they impair the function of the hippocampus, which mediates memory. Is this why my 5th-graders can’t remember their Kindergarten teacher or who they were friends with just three years ago in second grade? Stress hormones also suppress our immune systems. Could this be why so many kids suffer from allergies, intestinal issues, and autoimmune diseases? I’m not a doctor, but I have been working with kids and adults for the last 25 years and it’s only been during the last decade that I’ve witnessed an increasing level of stress and anxiety and an alarming decrease in the ability to remember people, places, and things including lessons from one year to the next and sometimes one marking period to the next.  

Thank You

The decrease of adrenaline and cortisol is a valuable outcome of the mindfulness practice. If you’re in need of more research, there is so much out there that you can put your hands on immediately and it will support what I’ve shared with you today.  I would like to thank Dr. Dan Siegel and Mindful Schools for the notes that helped me get through all the sciencey bits.

If you’re a teacher, you may be inspired to sign up to take the online courses with Mindful Schools: Mindful Essentials and Mindful Educators to get trained in the Mindful School curriculum.  You’ll get access to a K-12 curriculum and so much more.

**SHIFT Work 

The SHIFT work I have for you this week has two parts.  Part one is to practice Mindful Listening. See if there are any new sounds you pick up, sounds that were never there before.  Part two is to pay attention to what your heart and belly are telling you and notice what changes happen in your body as you experience feelings in these visceral organs.  

You can also sign up to receive the FREE Wellness Workbook and have fun playing around with creating 5 quick steps to wellness! Just sign up at the bottom of the Home page of this website.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final part of the Mindful Human series: “The Role of the Mindful Human”.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with the practice so if anything resonated with you here in Part III or if you have any questions, feel free to post them on the Shift for Wellness Facebook group page.  

As we build community there, you will be able to connect with and learn from other like-minded individuals who are purposefully practicing with the intention of bringing more ease into their lives.  

Remember, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being easy with the practice. xo