The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard Davidson with Sharon Begley, was the third book from my 2012 reading list. This is my third of (1, 2) 3 posts on the book.
Davidson describes Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as the most widely taught secular form of meditation in academic medical centers in the western world. MBSR is essentially non-judgmental awareness of your current state – physically, emotionally, cognitively. It is a process of observing the thoughts and feelings that come into your mind and, without judgment, recognizing them and letting them go.
MBSR can start as simply as focusing your attention on your breathing. It can then progress to recognizing the physical sensations in each area of your body, noticing your emotional state, and paying attention to your thoughts, in each case recognizing and letting go of the thought without judgment.
Essentially MBSR retrains your brain. We all currently have neural paths that are stronger and weaker in our brains based on genetics, experience, and habit. Most of these paths are pretty automatic. We experience an angry spouse, stubborn child, setback at work, criticism from our boss and the objective awareness of this travels from our prefrontal cortex (where we intellectually understand it) to our amygdala (which attaches intense negative emotion).
MBSR trains your brain to stop the connection from that intellectual understanding to the intense negative emotion. You practice noticing without judgment. Davidson describes,
“Ugh, I have to stop worrying about work,” becomes, “Oh, how interesting that a thought about problems at work has entered my consciousness.” “Ouch, my knee is killing me,” becomes, “Aha, a signal from my knee has reached my brain.” If these observations start spinning off into judgmental thoughts, as they tend to (“I should have finished that project sooner than two minutes before the deadline!), try to return to the process of mere observation.
Sounds simple and easy. Far from it.
Also might sound like, for lack of a better term, woo-woo BS. Far from it.
How do we know? In Davidson’s experiments 8 weeks of MBSR led to lower anxiety and greater left side prefrontal cortex activity. The left side of the prefrontal cortex is connected to positive emotions, the right to negative. In fact, this left side prefrontal cortex activity tripled for the MBSR practicers while their right side prefrontal cortex activity fell. They also produced 5% more antibodies, showing stronger immune system response.
So MBSR leads to more positive and less negative emotion, stronger immune defenses, less anxiety, and therefore better ability to deal with and respond to stress. Davidson also found that MBSR increased brain networks involved in attention, thus improving practicers’ ability to focus.
I certainly highly recommend Davidson’s book if you want to learn more, or to go to a resource that is MBSR specific (disclaimer: I have not reviewed this item) one of the founders of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has an audio on the topic.
Read along with me as next up I explore The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh.