12/05/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Can Mindfulness Rewire Our Brains?

One of the most revolutionary and empowering insights coming from cutting-edge neuroscience is the fact that we can change our brains by thinking different thoughts. In her enlightening book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley explains that the paradigm in the scientific community for the past few centuries is that the brain is essentially fixed, hardwired, unchangeable. This view was summed up by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish neuroanatomist, when he said, "In the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable." In other words, "the circuits of the living brain are unchanging, its structures and organizations almost as static and stationary as a deathly white cadaver floating in a vat of formaldehyde," as Begley summarized.

But study after study is changing this view to fit the facts. As Begley reports,

The brain can indeed be rewired. It can expand the area that is wired to move the fingers, forging new connections that underpin the dexterity of an accomplished violinist. It can activate long-dormant wires and run new cables like an electrician bringing an old house up to code, so that regions that once saw can instead feel or hear. It can quiet circuits that once crackled with the aberrant activity that characterizes depression and cut pathological connections that keep the brain in the oh-god-something-is-wrong state that marks obsessive-compulsive disorder. The adult brain, in short, retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream.

In other words, it's not just that thinking positive thoughts helps us to feel better and have a better attitude. Positive, productive thinking can actually change the biological structure of our brains. Amazing! Begley continues:

Brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity ... Something as seemingly insubstantial as thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.

And believe it or not, one of the best tools scientists have used to discover neuroplasticity is the practice of "mindfulness meditation," described by the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera as:

... the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. It ... attends just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind...without reacting to them by deed, speech, or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference (like, dislike, etc.), judgment or reflection.

In the late 1980s, UCLA neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz experimented with mindfulness on his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) patients. He hypothesized that mindfulness could make them aware that their obsessions were caused by malfunctions in their brain, not true signals of distress. "It seemed worth investigating whether learning to observe your sensations and thoughts with the calm clarity of an external witness could strengthen the capacity to resist the insistent thoughts of OCD," says Schwartz. "I felt that if I could get patients to experience the OCD symptoms without reacting emotionally to the discomfort it caused, realizing instead that even the most visceral OCD urge is actually no more than the manifestation of a brain wiring defect that has no reality in itself, it might be tremendously therapeutic."

Schwartz trained his patients to recognize obsessive thoughts, and then think, "My brain is generating another obsessive thought. Don't I know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit?" The vast majority of his patients began reporting positive results within just one week. The research team performed PET scans before and after ten weeks of mindfulness-based therapy. For most of them, the final PET scans showed physical changes in their brains. "Therapy had altered the metabolism of the OCD circuit," Schwartz reported. "This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavior therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-identified brain circuit." His ultimate conclusion was that "Mental action can alter the brain chemistry of an OCD patient. The mind can change the brain."

Schwartz also said:

Conscious thoughts and volitions can, and do, play a powerful causal role in the world, including influencing the activity in the brain. Willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function. The exertion of willful effort generates physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical structure. The result is directed neuroplasticity.

Mindfulness, or meditation, has also been shown to successfully treat depression. Cambridge University researcher John Teasdale suspected that depressed patients might suffer fewer relapses if they learned to regard depressive thoughts "simply as events in their mind," as he put it. "The key," Begley explains, "would be to help patients become aware of their thoughts and relate to them merely as brain events rather than as absolute truths ... instead of allowing their feeling to drag them down into the pit of depression, patients would learn to respond with 'Thoughts are not facts,' or 'I can watch this thought come and go without having to respond to it.'"

After eight weeks of mindfulness-based treatment, the scientists then followed the patients for an additional year. Regular treatment left 34 percent of the patients free of relapse. But with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, 66 percent remained relapse-free. That translates into a 44 percent reduction in the risk of relapse among those who received mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared to those receiving usual care.

I don't bring these studies up to suggest that you need treatment for some disorder. The point is that if mindfulness meditation can work on even extreme OCD and depressed patients, it can work for you. If it can rewire a brain with faulty chemistry, it can help you overcome your worry, fear, and anxiety. It can help you to identify and detach from negative thoughts and not internalize them. In short, it can expand your capacity to lead and achieve.