Essential to human survival early in life is the ability to form a secure bond in infancy. It has been said that babies who receive food, water, clothing, and all their basic physical requirements but lack human connection do not thrive. Why is attachment so intrinsic for people? Our species are a social bunch and like infants who are deficient in affection from primary caregivers, adults that lack strong interpersonal bonds with friends and family are more prone to the havoc of stress. The ability to bond with others begins literally in our own minds. Sometimes this capacity may be atrophied after an extended period of social isolation. Fortunately the brain can be retrained back to a state of love through meditation. This is not romantic love but the “agape” kind which comes from the Greek and refers to a love of humankind. Close relationships are a vital foundation for well-being but if your mind is rewired against love, it can be a sabotaging force in all areas of one’s life. Dr. Marsha Lucas, a Washington-DC psychologist and neuropsychologist, is the author of Rewire Your Brain For Love which explains how the neuroscience of meditation can rewire the brain back to love. Dr. Lucas answered the following Q&A about her book and the benefits of mindfulness meditation and its clinical applications.
How would you describe mindfulness meditation to someone who has never heard of it before?
I think the best definition of mindfulness practice is one from Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.
If you’ve never meditated before (or even if you have), you may have some idea that meditation requires sitting on the floor like a pretzel with no distractions or discomfort, in a blessedly quiet, sublimely inspirational room, legs crossed in lotus position, serenely closed eyes, and your mind completely still.
Gaahh—no wonder so many people think they can’t meditate! Who can achieve that?
So what does it look like? You bring your attention to something. Your mind wanders (naturally!). You notice that your mind has wandered, and you gently – nicely, lovingly, kindly (you get the point) – bring it back. Lather, rinse, repeat. The more your mind wanders, the more chances you have to notice and return – which ancient practice and neuroscience researchers alike think may be the “magic moment” in which change in the mind and the brain occur.
From a neuroscience perspective, how does the practice of mindfulness meditation “rewire” the brain?
We have the capacity to create actual changes in the connections and pathways in our brain, throughout our adult lives. That’s a relatively new finding in neuroscience – “neuroplasticity” – the brain’s ability to grow new neurons and new connections beyond about age 21 – wasn’t widely accepted until 10-15 years ago.
To put it very simply, whatever your brain does the most, it commits the most resources to. Hebb’s “law” states that neurons that fire together, wire together. So, if you practice playing piano, you can see increased density and connections in the brain areas controlling fine motor control of both hands. If you play the violin, same results – except only for the left (fingering) hand. Studies have shown that these changes occur even if you never actually use your hand(s) to practice – but just visualize the activity of your hands on the piano, for instance.
Now, here’s what’s most exciting to me as a psychologist, because I know that the brain can work for us, or against us, in our relationships: The research being done in neuroscience and brain-imaging labs has been showing that the practice of mindfulness meditation seems to change the size and activity in brain regions that are deeply involved in how we “do” relationships. These include the insula, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and other areas I talk about (in plain English!) in the book.
Is creating vibrant relationships through mindfulness meditation about reducing “automatic anxious responses” in people who tend to have over-developed fear responses?
That’s definitely a part of it – developing pathways in the brain that let you have better, smoother, and in-the-moment ways to keep your “alarm button” (in your lower brain, your amygdala) from hijacking you, so you don’t end up having fear-based, anger-based, or sort of “knee-jerk” defensive responses – the ones that get you into relationship trouble.
There’s more, though – developing a more integrated brain helps you experience so much more in your relationships, much more than just managing your fear better.
What are the 7 key relationship benefits you detail in the book from mindfulness meditation?
Perfect question to follow up with! Here’s the best way I’ve found to summarize the impact of mindfulness practice on relationships:
1. Better management of your body’s reactions
2. Regulation of your “fear” response
3. Greater emotional resilience
4. Increased response flexibility
5. Improved insight or “self-¬knowing”
6. Healthier, balanced empathy and attunement – to yourself and others
7. A perspective shift from “me” to “we”
I’ve found that the growth of these seven acquirable skills — that’s important: we can acquire these! — has such potent impact on our relationships with others that I call them the seven “high-voltage” relationship benefits of mindfulness.
How come people are on autopilot in their automatic reactions to certain situations? What is the brain wiring behind that response?
Think about getting a nasty “ouch” when we’re very little. Maybe a kitten accidentally gave you a painful (and surprising!) bite when you were a baby. You won’t explicitly remember it (our baby brain can’t yet store memories with “date and time stamps”), but thereafter, you’ll be likely to sort of automatically avoid (or distrust, or dislike) cats, since your brain just “knows danger when it sees it.” So you automatically practice that avoidance, reinforcing it. Good way to survive, right? Learn once and it’s in there – you don’t even have to think about it, because it’s a reaction without “thought.”
We’re talking about implicit memory, and much of what we learn in the first two years of life are implicit memories – we don’t have “conscious” awareness of the events or feelings, but we learn from them and are shaped by them (literally, in our brain’s pathways).
From birth until about two years, during a staggering amount of brain development and wiring, we’re very busy with one of our most important jobs as babies – developing attachments with our caregivers, so we’ll survive. Those early experiences of love, attachment, vulnerability – being with a caregiver who “gets” you and responds accordingly, or not — get stored in implicit memory. So, much like recognizing a cat instantly and knowing what it “means” to you, your partner’s disappointed look evokes that instant “knowing” and long-ago wired-up expectation and reaction (maybe trying harder to please, maybe going silent and withdrawing). Being emotionally vulnerable and getting close to someone – that could fire up the implicit memory of a cold and distant parent, and that’s implicitly remembered and acted upon just as unconsciously as your fear of small furry things with teeth.
Those “unthought knowns,” as Christopher Bollas calls them, can affect us like a puppet master pulling the strings on a marionette, or like the autopilot program on a plane – without our awareness. Breaking out of autopilot is the key to better relationships.
How long does it take for a person’s brain to show changes on a brain scan as a result of mindfulness practice?
You don’t have to practice for years to see these changes in the brain — some of the most recent findings have looked at people who have never practiced meditation, then taught half of those folks how to meditate and had them practice it for eight weeks. When the researchers compared the “never meditated” group to the “meditating for eight weeks” group, the people who had meditated for just eight weeks showed beneficial brain changes. Richie Davidson, PhD, a phenomenal researcher in this area, talks about changes in as little as two weeks of regular mindfulness practice, and there are more and more studies showing up in the research supporting that.
That fits well with what I’ve seen in my clinical practice – my patients often start to report (and show) changes in how they’re relating to themselves and the rest of their world within three to six weeks of regular mindfulness practice.
Describe the direct connection between specific meditations and how they improve relationships?
I’ll give one example here – in each chapter of the book I describe brain areas, their relationship connection (and the related research), and a meditation exercise that taps into that brain area getting a beneficial workout.
The insula is an area related to bringing information about what’s going on in the body from down low in the brain, up into our higher, more “intellectual” brain areas. A number of studies have shown that practicing mindful awareness of sensations the in body (like in a Body Scan practice) can plump up and bring greater activity to the insula. One benefit of that? There’s a study out of Dartmouth that found a correlation between activation of the insula and the quality of orgasm in women. (Just in case anyone’s interested in that.)
Do you recommend certain resources that people can utilize in their local area to reinforce their practice, such as meditation groups?
Many of the patients in my practice who have tried meditation previously and found it too difficult come to realize—after finding a group of others to “sit” with—that this was the missing element for them in being able to maintain their commitment and their practice.
There are resources in many communities now for meditation in groups. The form of meditation that I focus on (and that has been the subject of what I find to be the most compelling neuroscience research) is mindfulness, or insight, meditation. Here are some of the larger communities, organizations, and practice centers. An online search for these – or even simply a search like “mindfulness meditation Topeka Kansas”, should lead you to some near you.
• The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society
• Insight Meditation Society
• Spirit Rock Meditation Center
If you’re looking for other tools to support their practice, maybe because you’re too far from any mindfulness classes or “sits”, Kate Crisp of the Prison Dharma Network has put together a list of apps, and I agree with her recommendations. You can find them listed here: www.prisondharmanetwork.net/profiles/blogs/review-of-best-mindfulness-apps.
In addition, a lot of my patients have found “Insight Timer” (for iPhone, Android, and other platforms) (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/insight-timer-meditation-timer/id337472899?mt=8) to be great not only as a handy timer for how long you’re meditating, but also as a “community” because it can connect you with others around the world who are practicing at the same time.
The development of new, more integrated circuits in the brain through mindfulness, how are these structural changes intrinsic to improving relationships? What areas of the brain have these new circuits develops?
There are so many aspects of how a better-integrated brain supports our well-being, and then there are some specific areas and pathways between them to talk about – it’s hard to distill them down and have it still make sense, so I’ll just consider these as breadcrumbs to lead along this big, beautiful trail . . .
Structural and functional brain changes that impact our relationship skills have been found to change in response to mindfulness practice – studies have shown increased activity (or helpful inhibition) in the following areas, and/or increased gray matter (neurons and their connections with one another – one time it’s good to be “dense” in your brain!):
• the insula: important in attunement and empathy toward others, as well as self-awareness in general
• the amygdala: involved in immediate “knee-jerk” fight-or-flight emotional and physical responses, and the implicit memories we have about attachment, related to developing and expressing trust
• the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): a big player in the communication between the cortical areas (the upper, sort of “thinking” part of your brain) and the subcortical (your lower, more “raw-feeling” brain parts, like your amygdala). Important in emotional regulation, the ability to recognize one’s emotions, and motivation to communicate with others
• the left prefrontal cortex: with increased activation (as seen in mindfulness meditators), the left PFC improves positive mood, approach (vs. withdrawal), and other relationship goodies
• the OMPFC (orbitomedial prefrontal cortex): a key structure in gathering and processing “social information.” If you see a facial expression that looks like someone who is about to blow her top, you can thank your OMPFC for helping you draw on context and previous experiences—allowing you to calculate your reaction based on whether the face belongs to your scary exploding boss or your two-month-old niece.
• And don’t get me started on the hippocampus (involved in calming down the amygdala so you don’t wig out during an argument)… the smart vagus (an evolutionary circuit supporting safe emotional connection with others)… von Economo neurons (possibly major players in empathy and compassion)…
Other articles by Dr. Lucas can be found on Psychology Today or at DailyOM. A free download of her basic mindfulness meditation is also available on her website. She has also recorded a video segment on YouTube titled “Breaking Out of Autopilot”.