What is mindfulness?
According to the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, Jon Kabat Zinn, mindfulness is purposely bringing awareness to the present moment experience, moment to moment, without judgment. The awareness could be narrow and broad, from our breathe, bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts, to our internal sounds, sounds in the external environment, or interpersonal communication, etc. Being aware of our present moment experience enable us to notice our automatic pilot, our habitual way of reacting to stimulus. As we become more aware, we are able to open more options in responding to different stimulus in our daily living.
What is automatic pilot?
In any moment, our mind can only hold a limited number of units of information for processing. This is called working memory. In order for us to perform more complex tasks, we need to extend our working memory by automatic pilot. That is, we habitually link up different actions needed for more complex tasks. For example, a driver who can drive with manual gears without effort is processing in automatic pilot. During driving, the driver is able to talk to the passengers simultaneously and still be able to bring them to the destination.
What are the benefits of practicing mindfulness?
Neuroscientific research showed that mindfulness calms the activity of the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala is the center of emotional processing that is associated with fear responses and emotional memory. Regular mindfulness practice is found to be beneficial for shortening the recovery of negative emotional responses and reducing the intensity of negative emotions.
Regular mindfulness practice also enable us to stabilize and control our attention. We will be more able to notice our mind wandering with mindfulness practice and increasing the likelihood for us to bringing our attention back to our tasks. We will also be less distractible by distracting information in our conscious awareness. Neuroscientific research showed that the activation in the prefrontal cortex of the brain increased for mindfulness practitioners. The prefrontal cortex is the center for complex cognitive behavior, planning, decision making. It is also associated with sustained attention and awareness.
Our subjective sense of our body will be enhanced through the practice of mindfulness. This will increase our emotional self-awareness and help us to regulate our emotional reactions more effectively. Studies showed that regular mindfulness practice changes the structure of the insula in our brain. The insular is the center for subjective awareness of our bodily sensation. With the increased thickness of insula through regular mindfulness practice, we will be more able to be aware of our negative emotions, so that we can manage them more effectively.