The Table Video

Jeffrey M. Schwartz

How Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain

Research Psychiatrist, UCLA School of Medicine
December 17, 2013

Research Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz (UCLA) discusses the effect of mindfulness on the human brain, explaining the concept of “self-directed neuroplasticity” (i.e., changing your own brain).


What is the effect of this mindfulness on the brain? Mindfulness training accentuates the capacity for a person to use the uniquely human frontal cortex or prefrontal cortex parts of the brain that are commonly called, in neuroscience, the parts of the brain that serve executive function. So it is a very fair statement to say that mindfulness enhances your executive function, any practitioner’s executive function, and does it by enhancing the performance of the parts of the brain that subserve executive function.

And by executive function, we significantly mean the capacity to direct attention, the capacity to inhibit pre-programmed or over-learned habitual responses, the capacity to make clear-minded decisions quickly and under pressure, the capacity to change cognitive frames effectively in a very timely fashion. These are all very high level mental functions. So we now know, with very well-done scientific research, that mindfulness, you can say strengthens. It’s an exercise that strengthens the parts of the brain that help a person use executive function more effectively.

And on top of that, in the process of doing so, it has also been well-demonstrated, very well-demonstrated, by extremely well-done scientific research that in the process of enhancing executive function of the brain, it also helps any person modulate emotional functions of the brain so that it doesn’t eliminate, in any way, emotional activity.

But, consistent with my description of enhancing our capacity to see inside of us, we still have emotions but we’re aware of those emotions and mindfulness changes how the brain works in ways that increase our ability to direct, control, modulate the expression of those emotions in ways that enhance our function.

And then in my own research, and now in research that has been done in the last couple of years that reaffirm it and even more systematically demonstrate it, people who do more practice of mindfulness and, specifically, people who do more systematic meditation-based practice of mindfulness, form connections in their brain more … There’s a higher connectedness in areas of the brain that basically subserve these functions that I’ve just described. So the frontal brain gets more in touch with the emotional brain. The frontal brain gets more capable of affecting how the emotional, or limbic, brain works.

And you can literally see, with brain imaging, that these connections have been strengthened in the brain. And that very much brings into play a term that I coined over 10 years ago in my book, The Mind and the Brain, “self-directed neuroplasticity.” So through the practice of mindfulness, you accomplish self-directed neuroplasticity, which means you make wise choices about how to focus your attention that change your brain, that’s basically what neuroplasticity means, that change your brain in adaptive self-directed ways, and that you can see the results of those brain changes now with scientific studies using brain imaging. So it’s an exciting story. [gentle music]

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