By Dr. Chas Gant, M.D., Ph.D.
As more and more people practice various forms of meditation (contemplation and self-reflection), there seems to be an increasing appreciation that mindfulness is a completely separate faculty of consciousness, independent of the other four faculties: cognition (thought and visualizations), emotion and intuition, behavior and kinesthetic-related activity and sensation (the five senses).
Mindfulness-based psychotherapies are becoming popular and are being combined with many kinds of earlier approaches such as cognitive therapy—now being relabeled as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Formal, peer-reviewed, psychological testing instruments can measure improvements in the psychological and behavioral function of patients who have engaged in mindfulness-based therapies, and are even being standardized to measure the facets of mindfulness itself.
More recently, mindfulness is being appreciated as not only a faculty of consciousness—an experience—but also as a faculty which is conferred by certain brain regions. Neuroimagery studies have demonstrated dramatic changes in brain function of mindfulness practitioners, especially in the prefrontal cortex and associated structures.
Activation of the prefrontal cortex modulates anger and fear in the limbic regions of the brain, the experience of somatic pain via gating mechanisms in the thalamus, behavioral compulsions emanating from primitive reptilian structures (striatal cortex), fight/flight sympathetic discharges from the brain stem and the talkativeness of the intellect via feed-forward and feedback loops to cortical columns in the gray matter of the cerebral cortex. This all suggests that we are inherently designed to be using a part of our brain’s anatomy which appears to be relatively dormant in most people.
That we have a whole region of our brain which is specialized to make us compassionate and tolerant and less aggressive and fearful may, at first, seem astonishing, but its evolutionary value is obvious. Our whole social order depends on it. The prefrontal cortex is widely understood to be closely affiliated and perhaps “evolved from” the more recently appearing structures in the emotional limbic regions of higher mammals which confer the abilities to express playfulness, caressiveness and tenderness. Dogs and cats will express these qualities which we loosely define as loving tendencies and hamsters don’t—they simply don’t have the brain structures to act that way.
Who can deny that our world needs a little more playfulness, caressiveness, tenderness and compassion? Knowing that we have the right stuff already built into our brain anatomy ready to launch these attributes, which apparently lies dormant much of the time as demonstrated with neuroimagery studies, changes the whole perspective. The reason that there is not enough love in the world or that many people don’t seem to express it enough, may have nothing to do with some innate fault of human beings. It may have more to do with the scientific fact that certain inherent neurological potential built into our central nervous systems was never trained and activated.
If one does not practice musical expression, the right-sided, temporal regions of the brain won’t be trained to confer musical talent. The premotor and motor regions won’t gear up if they are not trained to do their thing—drive athletic talent and dance expression. Without education, imagine what would become of the non-frontal cerebral cortex and its ability to intellectually process information. No one would have an IQ over 80. Our prefrontal cortex is like any other brain region that specializes in various faculties. It is a gift, but if it is not exercised, it does not develop the skills that it is designed to express.
Googling “mindfulness education in schools” gets about 34,000 hits. Believe it or not, enormous resources and research are being devoted to educating children about mindfulness and the development of their relatively dormant, frontal structures. Congressman Tim Ryan, author of A Mindful Nation, has promoted mindfulness practice in Congress and has supported the delivery of mindfulness education to at-need populations, including veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and children in inner city public schools.
With the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, possibly bioengineered germs like Ebola and Lyme, mass extinctions of animals in many ecosystems and the deaths of perhaps 500 million humans in the last century of wars, there may never have been a better time in history to wake up and train a dormant part of our anatomy that is designed to make us more compassionate.
Further complicating the awakening of our dormant brain is research which suggests that the prefrontal cortex is one of the most vulnerable regions of the brain to concussions, heavy metals like lead and mercury and other toxicities, infections like Lyme disease and HIV, metabolic imbalances like hypoglycemia, allergies like gluten sensitivity and genetic vulnerabilities to all of these brain stressors. The skillful treatment of these causes of common medical and psychiatric disorders guided by functional medicine genomic testing is not only important to get good outcomes in a medical practice, but also to strengthen prefrontal cortex activity to then be able to apply it the matters discussed here.
Exercising, consuming organic food, drinking filtered water and getting good sleep are not usually lifestyle changes that are associated with the culturing of compassion, but they have neurological consequences for brain function and therefore they most certainly are important factors.
This holiday season, take a little time to balance out those highly skilled survival abilities, and amid all the hectic hustle and bustle, carve out some quiet, awareness-oriented moments. Eat and drink sensibly and get enough rest. Random acts of kindness are always golden opportunities too. And when little miracles happen—and of course they happen all the time—know that in fact, an important part of your brain anatomy is charging up and doing exactly what it is designed to do. All the stories of love and kindness running through our myths, culture, religions, art and literature are no longer just about someone’s philosophies and opinions. It’s now about hard, neurological, anatomical fact—it’s about what you physically are and what we are all intended to be.
Dr. Chas Gant, M.D., Ph.D, is an author, physician and practitioner, specializing in functional medicine, molecular health and healing. For more information, call 202-237-7000, ext. 104 or visit DoctorChasMD.com.