Health Studies, Mental Health

Mindfulness and Your Brain

Most of us have now heard of mindfulness, but you may have only a vague understanding of the term. Mindfulness is often recommended to reduce stress and anxiety. Scientists have proven its positive health outcomes in terms of neuroscience, and people all over the world are enjoying the benefits of this increasingly popular practice.

In a recent article, Eric Barker, of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, explains mindfulness in terms of left brain and right brain functions. The right side of your brain sees things pretty accurately, he says, and your left brain is always working to give meaning to your experiences. Often that is useful, but sometimes it causes problems.

“Lefty,” says Barker, “often screws up.” Sometimes Lefty has incorrect information, or he’s making interpretations based on false assumptions. If you’re telling a joke at dinner, and your companion doesn’t laugh, Lefty may decide he hates you. The truth may be that your companion didn’t understand the joke, or just had his mind somewhere else. Lefty’s misconceptions can create negative emotions; you may feel anxious, or depressed. In extreme cases, Lefty may see patterns that are not there, creating paranoia or schizophrenia.

It’s useful to remain conscious of Lefty’s role, because, as Barker says:

You assume his voice in your head is you and that his stories are rock-solid reality. But when Lefty isn’t detecting useful patterns, making accurate sense of things and giving meaning to the world, he can be a monster. He’s that jerk who has an opinion about everything, refuses to shut up and never admits when he’s wrong.

“If this doesn’t work out, my life is over.”

“Everything is awful.”

Neuroscience reminds us that Lefty isn’t the real you, yet you may be allowing that part of your mind to control your emotional reactions. Mindfulness gives you a reality check. It allows you to stay focused on what is concrete in life, detached from Lefty’s stories, categories, and sometimes, fictions.

Barker offers a quote from The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment:

Listen to your brain as you go about your day and check what you hear against the concrete facts you notice. When you do this you can start to hear Lefty at work:

Right Brain: The boss seems agitated.

Left Brain: Better get the resume together. We’re getting fired.

And then you can step in and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, pal. There are many reasons El Jefe could be upset. Let’s wait until we have more info before we empty our desk.”

With mindfulness, you do not eradicate thoughts. You allow them to be, you notice them, and you make the decision: Do I want to focus on this thought, or do I want to let it go?

To practice mindfulness, simply remain detached from your left brain chatter. Allow yourself to fully experience what is actually happening at this moment in time. Psychologists call this “being in the flow.” Astronaut Edgar Mitchell described how he was forever changed by viewing earth from a distance:

What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity… The thought was so large it seemed inexpressible, and to a large degree it still is.

Mitchell’s experience is not one most of us will ever be able to access. But you can experience that same sense of connectedness, of flow, by quietly noticing your own moment-to-moment reality.