What is our prefrontal cortex and how does Mindfulness affect it?
Our prefrontal cortex is the small part of the brain just behind our forehead. This is where a large part of our mood experiences comes from.
People who have higher activity in the right are more likely to worry, have anxiety and feel more sadness.
People with higher activity in the left have a greater well-being, are more energized, alert and enthusiastic.
Can we change our brain to use the left side more than right side in order to have more frequent and positive emotions?
Professor Richard Davidson a neuroscientist who came up with the idea that emotions might be changeable and that we could possible move the happiness set point ( from the right to the left). He did extensive tests on a few monks from the Himalayas back in the 1970’s to see if there was a relationship between mental brain exercises such as meditation and the happy set point.
During the tests , there were higher gamma wavelength signals when they were meditating then had ever been recorded in a neuroscience study before. Normally they last a couple of hundred milliseconds but they lasted up to 5 minutes! Even when they were not meditating, they were still higher gamma signals than ever before. Gamma wavelength- The suggested mechanism is that gamma waves relate to neural consciousness via the mechanism for conscious attention (being fully conscious and alert). Now 5 minutes might not sound very long, but try pay attention with full consciousness for a few minutes and see how challenging it really is.
Recently Professor Davidson performed the same tests on a 66 year old monk Matthieu Ricard “The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard’s brain produces a level of gamma waves – those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory – ‘never reported before in the neuroscience literature”, Davidson said. “The scans also showed excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, researchers believe” says Claire Bates at the Daily Mail. Read more here.
After the study on the monks , Professor Davidson teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn and they did a study on people who had never meditated before. This group all worked in the same high pressured job, feeling very stressed. They all started with the average emotional set point more on the right side. They did an 8-week mindfulness course and were tested before and after, with results showing that the emotional set point had shifted greatly to the left side! They felt less stressed, more engaged in their work, moods had improved, and they felt more energized and less anxious.
We do not realise that we can build and change the brains emotional circuitry the same way you can build and change muscles in your body! It’s called neuroplasticity . I had also never thought about the fact that damage to either the left or right side could essentially change a person. For example if there is damage to the left side they may no longer feel happiness and joy and are more prone to sadness and depression. This makes you think about some sports out there and the damage that can be done. An example of the effects in the sporting world are shown in the film based on a true story called Concussion with Will Smith.