The brain, as we all know, is an incredibly complex organ that controls our very being and takes a lot of clever understand of how it all works.
The most fascinating part of our brains is something called the Amygdala. This almond shaped section of nervous tissue located in the temporal lobe of the brain. We all normally have two amygdalae each, one on either side of our brain. They are thought to be part of something called the Limbic System within the brain that is responsible for all our emotions, survival instincts and memory, although this information has been debated heavily and the thought is that actually these amygdalae function totally independently. The jury is out on that one until science has the answers.
We all have fears.. fears of dying, rats, public speaking…the list is huge. In fact, most humans have at least one or more things that they fear in life.
But there is a reason for our fears. Fears often help us with self preservation. We feel fear in order for us to protect ourselves from danger and to heighten our emotions. This awareness is thought to be controlled by our amygdala.
The amygdala is responsible for the perception of emotions such as anger, fear and sadness as well as the controlling of our aggression. The amygdala stores all our memories of events and emotions so that we can call upon and recognize similar events in the future should we need to.
Studies show that there are a higher instance of women who suffer from anxiety. The amygdala is responsible for our fight or flight response, studies showed that males appeared to increase their serotonin receptors when faced with a stressful situation so don’t suffer from anxiety as much as women do.
When we have feelings of fear the amygdala are activated and anxiety and panic attacks can occur when the amygdala senses environmental stressors that stimulate fight or flight.
Anything can suddenly spark the amygdala into play. It could be a smell, sight or internal feeling that then leads on to stress. The amygdala reacts to this stimuli by preparing to either stand and fight or run away. This response is triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. As a result blood sugar rises to feed energy into muscles. Shaking may occur in an attempt to return blood to the rest of the body.
The amygdala appears to have a strong link to Post-traumatic stress disorder and Bipolar Disorders and certainly plays a huge part in anxiety. Recent studies published in The Lancet recently show a real collaboration between the amygdala and heart disease.
As we become more knowledgable about our brains and particularly the role of the amygdala science has played a big role in helping us understand how practising Mindfulness can have a dramatic effect on the amygdala and its beneficial effect to our health.
MRI scans have clearly shown that after an 8 week course of mindfulness practice the amygdala shows definite signs of shrinking.
As the amygdala shrinks the pre-frontal cortex that is associated with higher brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision making actually becomes thicker.
The connectivity between these two regions of the brain ( how often they are activated together) also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice that you do says Adrienne Taren who is a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh.
So basically what happens when you practice mindfulness is that you increase your ability to recruit higher order, pre frontal cortex regions and in doing so it downgrades the lower end of brain activity..the amygdala.
In other words, our primal responses to stress seems to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.
There are still lots of studies to be done but the findings have shown that mindfulness has defiantly moved away from being seen as a spiritual thing towards proper science and with clinical evidence to back it up.
Mindfulness to some is still seen as a new age, quasi-spiritual form of meditation that seems to have prevented mindfulness from being hailed as an antidote to our increasingly frantic world. Research is helping overcome this perception and ten minutes of mindfulness could soon become an accepted, stress-busting part of our daily routine just like brushing our teeth.
We all need to take control of our own health. Knowledge is a powerful tool to have and knowing that science has proven that mindfulness actually shrinks the very part of the brain that controls our negative feelings and emotions is really exciting.
For further information on the amygdala click the youtube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TN23YiGkAQ