One of the first areas of our lives that benefits from even just starting a mindfulness practice would be an improvement in our cognitive functions, and this is because of brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. The neurological underwiring of our brains essentially changes and adapts as a result of our life experiences. Understanding this process even just a little bit better, helps us to literally become masters of our own fate.
Studies have shown that regular mindfulness training results in improved cognitive functions. The definition of cognition has been often described in the context of cognitive functions, including: attention, memory, creativity, and executive functions such as decision making (Guillen and Ribera, 2014).
The ability to pay attention on purpose is an integral part of all mindfulness training and it also becomes possible due to brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. The first step across many mindfulness training programs and teachings, is simply to learn to become more present and aware. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence describes in detail how mindfulness helps to prevent our mind from wandering, due to its neurological underpinnings (2005). However, in order to fully appreciate the impact of mindfulness practice on the brain, it is important to understand a little bit of the mechanics behind how cognition physically manifests itself in the brain.
Forming neural connections in the brain is a lot like programming a computer. Persistent thought patterns have been shown to reinforce their respective neural connections in the brain, making those connections stronger. While our brains are very efficient at constantly getting programmed by events in our environment and by our perceptions of those events; some of our habits and mental heuristics prove to be beneficial, but some prove to be maladaptive. By operating in the present moment, we have better chances of understanding the full spectrum of nuances and complexity involved in the situation at hand. Therefore, we are able to chose to respond consciously, instead of automatically.
Tang and Posner also describe the neurological underpinnings of mindfulness practice in detail, pointing to studies that show activation of attention related brain regions during mindfulness and meditation practice (2013). This research further confirms that “the mental process of mindfulness requires paying attention and self-regulation”. Focus and awareness go hand in hand here. Some models also hold that attention depends on three further neural networks with distinct functions: alertness and vigilance, orientation and concentration, and conflict management and prioritization (Guillen and Ribera, 2014).
The next cognitive function that benefits from mindfulness training is memory.
Memory is tied to our ability to pay attention on purpose. Many people become victims of subconscious impulses, but in order to better understand why we live our lives in a certain way, it is important to dig deeper and decode this subconscious programming. Cognitive psychology classifies memory systems into short-term working memory and long-term. While short-term memory has a limited capacity and is subject to distractions, our long-term memory stores what we pay attention to.
Our long-term memory can be further classified as implicit and explicit (Rock and Page, 2009). Implicit memories are stored in our subconscious based on past experiences and can manifest themselves as preferences, tendencies and biases. Explicit memories are facts and numbers, or what we typically think memories are. Memory can also be classified as declarative (analytical) and procedural (tactical), or prospective (future) and retrospective (past).
From the perspective of the brain, the neurological systems underlining all these different classifications of memory systems are very similar and connected. Guillen and Ribera outline that mindfulness practice not only makes our ability to pay attention stronger, but it also improves our “working memory, which is needed to retain information in the mind while doing complex tasks such as reasoning, understanding and learning” (2014). Therefore, by operating in the present moment, we are better able to deduct and discern the information that is relevant and available, and make better choices and decisions based on that.
Executive function in the context of cognitive systems relates to the functionality of the pre-frontal cortex of our brains, which has been observed to further improve and develop as a result of mindfulness training in the research examples below.
According to Guillen and Ribera, the benefits of having a regimented mindfulness practice, influence and encompass: “problem solving, planning, forming concepts and decision making” (2014). Hougaard and Carter further describe that “mindfulness training increases the density of grey cells in our cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that thinks rationally and solves problems” (2018). A well-developed executive function helps to lead ourselves and others towards shared goals and long-term plans.
Mindfulness practices alter our perception, enabling us to perceive the world without the fight-or-flight reactions governed by the limbic system, which is the default network of our brain. Since our problem solving and decision-making processes often get hijacked by subconscious biases, in reality these processes are not always as rational as we would like to believe. Although, as mentioned in the above section on memory, implicit mental heuristics are sometimes helpful in allowing us to respond to our surroundings quickly (for example if we are being chased by a bear). Unfortunately, more often than not, mental biases can also inhibit us from understanding the complexity of the current situation, and instead we are left acting solely on our impulses (for example in cases of racial discrimination).
Therefore, having a mindful attitude is especially helpful in rapidly changing environments such as the business world, where we often need to adjust our strategies quicker than the competitors. The real danger here would be only in believing that mindfulness alone can fix all of our problems (Liberman, 2017)!
Just to briefly summarize, in this blog post we covered some positive effects that mindfulness practice has on our cognitive functions, including: selective attention, memory and executive functions.
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Hougaard, R., & Carter, J. (2018). The Mindful Leader. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Lieberman, C. (2017). Is Something Lost When We Use Mindfulness as a Productivity tool? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Ribera, A., & Guillen, J. L. (2014). Mindfulness and Business. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Rock, D., & Page, L. (2009). Coaching with the Brain in Mind – Foundations for Practice. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey.
Tang, Y., & Posner, M. I (2013). The neuroscience of mindfulness. Handbook of NeuroLeadership. (215 – 225) NeuroLeadership Institute.