Meditation: Weight-Lifting for the Brain
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
“It is my belief that mental exercise will become as common a practice as brushing our teeth is today. It is then that I think the world will change” – Dr. Richard Davidson, mindfulness researcher and author
Suppose for a second there is a part of the body that if you exercise it, it will become stronger and increase in functionality. And let’s also suppose for a second that if you practice a particular aspect of your given sport or career you will get better at it. These are both no-brainers.
If you appropriately train a particular muscle region (i.e. bicep) it will grow. If you train an aspect of your sport (i.e. shoot 300 jump shots a day with correct form) that area will improve. These concepts are well understood.
Now let’s suppose for a second there’s a brain region that if trained properly can help you facilitate peak experiences. This concept is less understood but equally plausible.
Let me introduce you to a brain region called the Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC). Are you down with PCC, yeah you know me! Sorry couldn’t help myself. Anyway, fMRI studies suggest that activation in the PCC is associated with being caught up in or attached to one’s experience. Activation in this brain region is also associated with poorer task performance and decreases in attention. In addition, greater PCC activation is potentially related to increased self-evaluation and judgment. Not to mention, increased PCC activity is linked to mind-wandering and mind-
wandering itself is associated with lower levels of happiness.
Okay, that was a mouthful. Catch all that? Did your mind-wander? Zone out? Perhaps heightened PCC activation led to decreased attention. Well, don’t judge yourself for it. Oops there’s that pesky PCC lighting up again.
Research has also found that along with the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the PCC is an integral part of the brain network known as the “default mode network.” This brain region is most active when we are mind-wandering, thinking about ourselves, planning for the future, and remembering the past. As such, this brain network is aptly named because it describes how the vast majority of us spend our waking hours. Essentially, much of the time we are caught up in the “story of me.” It is like we are the star of our own movie and the ongoing narration repetitively cycles through planning, remembering, fantasizing, and evaluating/judging. Not good for life, not good for sport.
Now the PCC is not binary like a light switch, meaning it’s not either on or off. Rather it works more like a light dimmer with different variations of activation ranging from high to low. So imagine you were able to find a way to dim PCC activation. What you may find is something that sounds a lot like the concept of “flow” or “being in the zone.” There would likely be a sense of complete immersion in a given activity, a sense of effortless doing, and potentially deep enjoyment. In essence, you could be less caught up in the ramblings of your own mind and more engaged in the present moment. Your mind would get out of the way as your talent emerges.
Neuroscience suggests that to turn down the PCC, you need to turn up the meditation. Unlike non-meditators, experienced meditators demonstrate reduced activity in the PCC and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). It is possible that through “brain training” in the form of meditation, the default mode for experienced meditators is not one that is caught up in the “story of me” but rather one that has shifted into a state of present-centered awareness. Brewer et al. (2011) contend, “meditation practice may transform the resting-state experience into one that resembles a meditative state, and as such, is a more present-centered default mode.” Just like consistent exercises and drills can help train your body and sport, developing a daily habit of meditation can provide the necessary repetitions to produce an enduring change to your mental game.
It is when you enter into this state of effortless awareness that peak experiences emerge from. You cannot get there by sheer willpower or force. You cannot think your way there. You certainly cannot get there simply by talking and reading about it. Just like physical exercise, practice is required. So, what you can do is take 15-20 minutes out of your day to essentially do nothing but focus on the breath. And when your mind wanders as it will, simply return to the breath over and over again. It is this noticing when the mind has wandered and coming back to the breath that you are putting in the necessary reps to train your brain to be more grounded in the here and now.
If you do not feel like you have 15-20 minutes to spare in your day for an exercise of this nature, my suggestion would be to do 30-40 minutes. Just kidding….well not really. It is likely a problem if you are too busy to exercise your mind. Research cautiously suggests that 12 minutes per day may be the minimal dose of meditation per day. However, why settle for the bare minimum? My guess is that if you are an athlete, you would not settle for the bare minimum in terms of your exercise regimen.
In my personal experience I have seen the most benefit from meditation when I do at least 20 minutes a day. Committing at minimum to this amount of time takes away from it being another to-do list item to check off your list but rather an opportunity to truly step away from the constant doing and default mode way of being.
Ready to get started. Check out my 15-minute guided meditation by clicking here.