Wise Mind and the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Practice
What is wise mind? Marsha M. Linehan developed this clinical process in her work on dialectical behavior therapy. Wise mind is the middle way between rational/reasonable mind and emotional mind; it allows us to live with balanced reason and emotion in daily interactions. When practiced regularly, it may reduce suffering from excessive stress, shame, guilt, and traumatic life experiences. One key benefit is that wise mind’s effects on emotion regulation may reduce the need to self-medicate, a core cause for all addictions. Rather than simply depending on sensory pleasures for short-term escape from pain and/or a fleeting experiences of joy/happiness, wise mind may improve radical acceptance, sensory soothing, and responding inter-personally with wisdom (kindness, respect, compassion). A valued possible outcome is increased authentic, longer-term happiness.
More Details: Wise mind mindfulness practices, along with regular meditation and/or yoga, allow us to pursue personal aspirations and goals using both reason and emotion. Whereas emotion is the juice of life (both pleasant and unpleasant), reason gives us logical strategies and methods to meet personal goals and satisfy needs. This combination of mindfulness skills may also reduce emotion dysregulation and impulsivity. When such mindfulness practices are used in skilled psychotherapy with home practice, it may lead to improvements in depression, anxiety, the effects of trauma, addictions, and eating disorders. Various well-constructed meta-analyses have demonstrated that mindfulness practice (mainly regular meditation) produced positive effects on depression, anxiety, chronic pain and emotion regulation. It is important to note that all these conditions may become precursors for addictions, including smartphone addiction. By 2007 it was estimated that nearly ten percent of Americans (30,000,000 people) practiced meditation; add to this other mindfulness practices like yoga, qi gong, and tai chi and that number may double. By 2015 mindfulness-based practices were well-integrated into various skilled therapies: mindfulness-based stress reduction (improves depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and emotion regulation), dialectical behavior therapy (improves emotion regulation, self-soothing, and impulsivity), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (50% eduction in relapse for repeated serious depressive episodes), mindfulness-based relapse prevention (for addictions), and acceptance and commitment therapy. The key variable was clear: if clients practiced regularly, they improved their clinical conditions, but if clients did not practice, they did not improve their clinical conditions. Therefore, two things are very important: doing regular practice in psychotherapy sessions, and the clinician being a regular mindfulness practitioner.
Mindfulness and the Brain: Key neuroscience findings suggest that regular practice of meditation (and/or yoga) may result in profound brain changes. Some findings are that regular practice may weaken the limbic systems’s reactivity via lower firing rate and neuronal power, strengthen the frontal and prefrontal executive/emotional functions via better intention, attention, awareness, and concentration, and possibly improve right-left brain integration. It has been suggested that prefrontal activation increases levels of B-endorphin, a pain reducing opiate. Prefrontal activation may also improve experienced pleasure and reduce breathing rate so relaxation is experienced directly. When people pay close attention to positive stories they tell themselves and/or positive emotional memories, serotonin levels may increase. Thus mindfulness practices enhance the experience of happiness. However, if people get stuck into paying attention to negative stories and negative emotional memories, the level of serotonin is reduced. Yes, being chronically stuck in the suffering of your past always makes emotional experience worse.
For more information refer to Aguirre, B. & Galen, G. (2017). Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder…Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness