Early hominids’ survival depended on being alert, vigilant and ready to respond and react very quickly to threats- real or perceived. As Darwin explained, in “On the Origin of the Species”, traits which increase the likelihood of survival remain in the gene pool, so any physical or mental adaptations that reduce reaction time would be inherited. Thousands of years later, we are still hardwired to have hair-trigger reactions. It’s a bit of a disconnect that our emotional and intellectual evolution hasn’t kept pace with the rate at which our First World lives are becoming physically safer. This causes individuals to experience stress and anxiety and to over-react to many stimuli. Our inflated competition for resources and primal responses to potential dangers also causes social dysfunction. Over thirty years of research has shown that mindfulness practice can actually help individuals to reprogram their brains for more appropriate responses and better social function.
The primary area of the brain responsible for threat detection and fear responses is the amygdala; it is primed for vigilance. This way, the brain can compare new experiences with old ones and in a split second assess the safety of a situation. It has been an effective system for keeping our species alive for tens of thousands of years. It is, however, a bad system for our mental and emotional stability when the brain sends signals to the body to invoke the same “fight or flight” response to being late for work or getting cut off in traffic as being attacked by a dire wolf. Modern humans are continually physically and psychologically responding to minor threats and emotional distress with the same intensity as life or death situations. Widespread medical research since the 1970s has proven the existence of myriad stress- related illnesses in individuals such as high blood pressure, asthma. diabetes, migraines, depression and anxiety, and gastrointestinal problems.
If inappropriately visceral responses are unhealthy for individuals, they are cancerous for society. To promote survival of the species, negative experiences are typically are more easily remembered than positive experiences. To imprint a bad memory very deeply serves as an instant warning to avoid that potential consequence in the future. According to psychologist John Gottman’s research, it takes five compliments to counteract each single criticism. So obviously any exercise that can train the brain to store positive experiences with an intensity more balanced with negative input will increase individual self-esteem and contentment as well as the quality interpersonal relations.
People in any social group from schoolrooms to boardrooms to living rooms will interact more harmoniously if they are kind and skillful in their choice of verbal, facial and physical messages they are sending to others, and even more so, if they have been neurologically equipped with the ability to process information using judgment rather than instinct. Simply put, if individuals are educated to process input then respond instead of automatically reacting to perceived threats or insults then potentially negative interactions will not escalate and might even be diffused.
It is no coincidence that the term “stress” in reference to psychosocial anxiety was first used by Walter Cannon in 1932 after the Industrial and Technological Revolutions and The Jazz Age, all of which accelerated the pace of work and social life. Modern life and the needs for survival have changed so much more quickly than our brains have physically evolved that there is an evolutionary disconnect between our instincts and appropriate emotional and physical responses. One of the beautiful miracles of our human biology, however, is the “plasticity” of the brain posited by William James in 1890. Controversial at the time, but taken as scientific fact today, this neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt and develop new pathways within one lifetime, means that we have the power to exercise and develop our brains as much as our bodies.
Mindfulness practices are among the few successful strategies (along with biofeedback and psychotherapy) proven to train the brain not to react so immediately or viscerally to negative input that isn’t actually life-threatening. Thru mindfulness, we can pause, notice a reaction arising, label it and make a more realistic assessment of the situation before consciously deciding on an appropriate response. With practice, we can even choose to just let the situation pass of its own accord without attaching any feelings to it at all or acting in any way. Our forbearers didn’t have to go to the gym to exercise their bodies because they were engaged in the physical work of just surviving every day, but now that we mostly sit at desks or do less strenuous work, we have to make a conscious effort to exercise to stay physically healthy. In much the same way, we have to make a conscious decision to give our brains a workout to retrain them because the social and emotional skills needed for 21st century life are so much different than those our ancestors needed to thrive.
Positive feelings, such as, compassion, love and gratitude stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” as opposed to “fight or flight”). Just as with the panic feelings of the sympathetic nervous system, the positive sensations of the parasympathetic nervous system can become imprinted and strengthened with repeated exposure and mindfulness training to become a reservoir of calm that we can access when needed. With continued mindfulness training, our brains can even learn to automatically go to the calming nerve centers associated with the parasympathetic system when stimulated instead of reacting from the impulses of the sympathetic nervous system. Research in this area by Jon Kabat Zinn thru his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, launched in 1979, was the foundation of the secular mindfulness movement.
Mindfulness training also increases the plasticity of the prefrontal cortex which is involved in neural integration. One increased function in this area with meditation is self-awareness and awareness of societal norms. This promotes making appropriate social choices for the good of the self and others. Improved functioning in the prefrontal cortex also increases empathy and communication skills, both the ability to better read facial and tonal cues from other people and the mental dexterity to respond in a thoughtful compassionate manner. Most importantly, the prefrontal cortex is involved in fear modulation or the ability to recognize if the level of distress is proportional and appropriate to the actual situation.
In our modern world, especially the in the workplace or schoolroom, our dangers are
much more likely to be social /interpersonal than physical, so mindfulness practice not
only helps to moderate and tame our animal instincts coming from the amydgala, but actually makes us more attuned to the data being processed in the prefrontal cortex. So it’s really no exaggeration to say that mindfulness practice can actually help to reprogram parts of our brain to be more evolutionarily in line with the social needs of our “civilized” lives. Mindfulness practice can help not only the health of individuals in this way but also benefit society by improving our compassion and social/emotional intelligence.