There may be many things about your life that you’d like to change, but
actually, there’s one thing you can do that will help with all of
them. And that one thing is…
R e m e m b e r t o b r e a t h e
What we’ve been saying, in one way or another, on every page of this site, is that when you remember to breathe – that is, when you do something to deliberately activate your mid-prefrontal cortex (MPFC), you are literally training your brain to provide a deeper experience of the core – that calm, connected, caring “place” which brings balance and harmony to all parts of your brain and body. And being in that more balanced, harmonious state brings forth capacities that will help you with whatever challenges you face, and in making the changes you want to make in your life.
You’ll be more motivated to make the effort to change our brain if you really believe you can change your brain. But wouldn't be at all surprising if you had doubts about how much your brain is capable of changing. After all, we’ve been told for decades that it’s "all in our genes," that we’re pretty much stuck with whatever hand we were dealt at birth. If we’re depressed or have trouble paying attention, it’s because of the brain chemistry we were born with. Right?
Well, for many years that was the prevailing wisdom. But in recent decades, radical new discoveries have challenged the old understanding of how our brains work. And perhaps even more surprising, new developments have also challenged our previous understanding of how our genes work.
In a nutshell, what scientists are discovering is that we can both change our brain and influence which genes will affect our mind and
body, by using a combination of clear intention and focused attention.
We all know that weight training increases the size and strength of the muscles we use to lift a weight. In much the same way, practicing a skill increases the size and strength of the part of the brain we use to perform the skill.
Alvin Pascual-Leone, a researcher at Harvard University, studied the brains of students who were asked to practice the piano for two hours a day. After just five days of practice, he found that the region of their motor cortex that controls finger movements had considerably expanded.
Pascual-Leone also tested a second group of students. Members of this group, instead of actually playing the piano for two hours a day, were asked to spend those two hours just imagining that they were practicing.
And at the end of five days,
their motor cortex had expanded almost as much as the first
Pascual-Leone concluded from the experiment that “we can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imagination.”
In using their imagination, the second group of students had focused on visualizing and feeling themselves practicing (focused attention), for the purpose of improving their playing (clear intention).
Breathing, relaxation, mindfulness, and other stress reduction techniques we teach on this site change the brain and body in dramatic ways. Regular, consistent practice of these techniques has been shown to reduce symptoms of many physical and psychological ailments including:
Regular, consistent practice has also been shown to increase overall well-being in a number of ways, including:
Research shows that these techniques are effective to the extent we have clear intention and focused attention while practicing them.
One of the most thrilling scientific discoveries in recent years has been in the field of genetics. It turns out that our genes are not, as it was thought for many years, the absolute determiners of our physical or mental traits. They come with an on-off switch that determines whether or not a particular gene is expressed.
There are many factors that influence the on-off switches of our genes. They include physical factors like diet and exercise. They include mental/emotional factors like stress. And they include social factors like support from family, friends and community.
What’s perhaps more surprising is that we also affect which genes are expressed by training our attention! So for example, even if we’re born with genes for depression or ADHD, mindfulness training can prevent those genes from ever being turned on.
According to Michael Meany, a leading expert on genes and development at McGill University, “There are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the environment.” The “environment” to which Meany refers includes both the inner environment of our thoughts, feelings, attention, and intention, as well as outer factors.
The key to success in training your brain?
Not once in a while, or whenever you happen to think of it.
But it’s not only how often you practice – it’s how you practice. For practice to be most effective…
your intention should be clear
and your attention should be focused.
So for example, if you’re practicing a breathing technique, it’s not enough to mechanically breathe in and out in the prescribed manner while your mind is busy planning the rest of the day or reliving an argument with a co-worker. To get the most benefit from your practice, you need to be calmly and kindly focused on the changes you’re experiencing in your body and mind as you breathe. And you’ll want to be clear about why you’ve chosen to practice the technique.
There are lots of exercises and techniques on this site that will help you train your brain. But even if you don’t feel you have the time to set aside for practice, there are plenty of brief moments throughout the day that provide an opportunity to change your brain. For example, when you’re about to eat, you can stop and take a few mindful breaths; when you feel irritated at a colleague, you can pause for a brief moment instead of reacting mindlessly; before getting out of your car, you can take a few breaths to relax the tension in your body.
These kind of things you can do in passing, on regular basis, all help to strengthen your mid-prefrontal cortex (MPFC), and help you to live more from the experience of calm, ease, and contentment at your "core."
Beyond techniques, you have the opportunity in any situation, to mindfully choose to express core qualities such as caring, compassion, courage, and commitment. And by cultivating the ability to observe your own experience calmly (self-awareness), act in a disciplined way (self-regulation), choose kindness over reactivity (response-flexibility), or tune in more deeply to the needs of others (connection), you’re actually changing the physical structure and functioning of your mid-prefrontal cortex, which in turn leads to positive changes throughout your brain and body.
You can find more about the scientific research showing the degree to which you can change your brain and your genes, on these pages: