Our Troublesome Brains: The Effects of Mindfulness Practices

Our Troublesome Brains: The Effects of Mindfulness Practices

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In this article, you will learn The Effects of Mindfulness Practices, how our brains evolved for survival rather than for happiness and how this sets us up for countless difficulties— difficulties that mindfulness practices were developed to help us resolve.

In addition, you will learn the effects of mindfulness practices, and how to start practicing mindfulness so that you can train your brain not only to thrive but also to flourish. Understanding what science is revealing about why various problems plague us is important for being able to use the practices effectively.

(Also Read: How to Practice Mindfulness?)

By some estimates, over 80 percent of visits to the doctor’s office in the developed world are for stress-related disorders. After upper-respiratory diseases (which we catch more easily when stressed because of our weakened immune system), the most common ailments are all either caused or exacerbated by stress, including chronic back and neck pain, gastrointestinal distress, headaches, insomnia, and problems with sexual functioning.

Then, many medical problems are the result of habit disorders like eating or drinking too much or eating unhealthy foods. And, of course, many people seek medical help for anxiety and depression.

These problems don’t just exist because of the difficulties living in today’s fast-paced world. Hardwired, evolutionarily determined tendencies that cause our stress are active even during the best of times. From what science is uncovering about the evolution of our brains, we have learned that most of us have minds that are predisposed to making ourselves unhappy.

And these predispositions set us up for so many psychological and physical difficulties and disorders. Of course, there are exceptions— there are a few individuals with minds that are naturally at peace, who are easily contented. And these people have far fewer stress-related problems than others.

The Effects of Mindfulness Practices, and The Evolution of the Human Brain

Research is showing that our propensity to psychological distress is universal. That’s good news—it means that it’s not necessarily our fault or failure. In addition, we humans have developed mindfulness practices that can help counteract our propensities for distress.

Science suggests that we didn’t evolve to be happy. The cortex of the brain mostly evolved to analyze the past and imagine the future—and to remember past moments of pleasure and pain and to figure out how to maximize future pleasure and avoid future pain. So, the cortex doesn’t just think of any thoughts; it thinks thoughts tailored to the demands of our environment.

Note: Research has shown that people who engage in mindfulness practices experience fewer stress-related problems than those who do not.

Our ancestors lived in small bands. It was uncommon for them to meet unknown people, and it was dangerous when they did. In addition, they were faced with starvation, parasites, illness, injury, and the hazards of childbirth and didn’t have painkillers or police departments.

Our ancestors could make two possible mistakes: Thinking that there was a lion behind the bushes when it was a beige rock and thinking that there was a beige rock behind the bushes when it was a lion. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second was death. So, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.

Our ancestors remembered every bad thing that happened and spent much of their lives anticipating more trouble. And this is the mind they bequeathed to us.

The Effects of Mindfulness Practices, and The Negativity Bias

Cognitive scientists say that we have developed what’s called a negativity bias. For example, notice what comes to your mind when you see the words “Bill Clinton.” In an informal sampling, about 80 percent of people immediately think about either Monica Lewinsky or a blue dress.

One reason for this is the existence of the amygdala, which is an almond-sized part of the brain that reacts more to negative than positive stimuli. The negative contaminates the positive more easily than the positive contaminates the negative. This is why we remember Monica Lewinsky and why negative ads dominate political campaigns.

Other animals, which presumably don’t think as much as humans do, also have a negativity bias. If you run a rat through a maze and at the end of a given pathway give the rat an electric shock, one trial learning will work, and the rat won’t go down that pathway again.

But if you run the rat through a maze and at the end they get food, they need several different trials before they learn it. But rats are much less likely than we are to spend their time, when not confronted by danger or pursuing food, thinking about the electric shock, or thinking about the food.

Negativity bias emerged in harsh settings very different from our own, but it continues to operate today. For example, daily, you might drive in traffic, try to diet, watch the news, juggle housework, pay bills, or go on a date. Even in relatively safe situations, we react as though they’re life-or-death situations and often expect the worst.

On top of our hardwiring, learning changes the brain. So, the negative expectations and outlooks that develop from our negativity bias become new pathways in the brain. Scientists used to think that the brain reaches maturity at age 25 and deteriorates after that. We now know that it’s more like a muscle. While it ultimately weakens, throughout our life, areas of the brain we use become stronger. Scientists call this experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

Other tendencies that predispose us to unhappiness include difficulties accepting change, because everything we enjoy or love eventually leaves or changes, and preoccupation with self, which is difficult given our changing fortunes and poor prognosis.

All of this interacts regularly with another important survival system that we share with many other animals: our emergency response, or fight-freeze-flight, system. It’s the arousal, which can feel like desperation, we experience when we’re threatened.

This emergency arousal system is activated by every one of our negative thoughts. While our bodies evolved to be able to handle these emergency responses from time to time, they don’t do very well when this system is activated all day long. It’s this constant activation that sets us up for so many ailments.

In addition, there’s another survival system that occupies a lot of our attention. While we evolved to expect the worst, we’re also hardwired to pursue pleasure and try to avoid pain. This makes a lot of sense evolutionarily because pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain motivates us to do things that help perpetuate our DNA.

Generally, activities that perpetuate our DNA are experienced as pleasurable, including returning to homeostasis, having sex, eating, sleeping, alleviating (most) pain, and enhancing social rank. So, we get hooked on seeking these things. And when we don’t have the conditions that help perpetuate our DNA, or fear that we’ll lose them, we become distressed.

Our fear-response system is activated not only by threats but also by fear that we won’t get what we evolved to want. These motivational systems—that drive us to seek pleasure and fear threats—are continuously interacting with our propensity to recall the past and imagine the future. They drive us to do things in the pursuit of happiness that doesn’t sustain our feelings of well-being for long.

Many of the things we do to pursue good feelings, such as shopping, are subject to the hedonic treadmill—you need more and more to keep the same level of well-being. And then there are all of the pursuits that feel good in the short run but leave us feeling bad in the long run, such as eating too many donuts.

It makes perfect sense that we would’ve evolved to be drawn to sweets and fats given that getting enough calories used to be a challenge, but it wreaks havoc for our modern lives in the developed world, where sufficient calories are all too readily available. With all of these evolutionarily hardwired systems operating, it’s no wonder that we so often find life to be difficult.

The Effects of Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness practices were developed in response to our complex evolutionary predicament. They’re systematic methods for gaining insight into how the mind instinctually creates suffering for itself. Mindfulness practices include techniques designed to interrupt these natural processes of the mind.

Of course, mindfulness practices are not the only tools we humans have developed to deal with our hardwired tendencies toward psychological distress. For example, people have developed programs of positive thinking—affirmations of various sorts—to counteract our negativity bias. And there are all sorts of psychotherapy designed to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

Historically, diverse cultures have developed a wide variety of religious beliefs and rituals that help us feel safer in an uncertain world. Studies have shown that all of these approaches—positive thinking, religious faith, and conventional psychotherapy—can enhance our sense of well-being.

Mindfulness practices are another set of tools. They may be particularly far-reaching in their effect on well-being because they address two challenges simultaneously: They can provide profound insight into the patterns of mind that create suffering, radically changing our views of ourselves and others, and they retrain the brain to not automatically respond in its instinctual patterns.

What are some of the insights into distress-generating patterns we get from mindfulness practice?

We notice that we relate to all experiences as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We see that we habitually try to hold on to the pleasant, push away the unpleasant, and lose interest in the neutral. This causes an inordinate amount of distress when paired with our negativity bias.

We evolved to both expect unpleasant experiences and to constantly work to try to avoid them. Having these tendencies coexist sets up a continuous tension for many of us that we experience as feeling stressed much of the time.

We also see that trying to grasp, or hold on to, changing phenomena causes suffering. We see that our thoughts are not reality; in fact, they constantly change with our changing feeling states. And we see that all that exists is the present moment—even though we’re hardwired to be constantly seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, which means living in memories of the past and fantasies of the future.

Reading, hearing, or talking about mindfulness isn’t the same as practicing it. It’s very difficult to understand what these practices are like unless you try them. It’s very important to practice regularly. And keep in mind that different variations have different effects.

(Related: Why Does Mindfulness Matter? A Research-Based Path to Well-Being)

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