How Mindfulness Can Guarantee Improvement
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 2nd, 2010

In future posts, I’ll write often about areas of psychology that have received extensive study in the last two decades:   Flow States, Mastery and the Pursuit of Excellence, all of which provide clues into how people who display no special gifts achieve extraordinary things in a wide range of disciplines.

What all three have in common is that the physical activity that leads to excellence—what your body is doing at the moment you experience flow or demonstrate mastery—is far less significant than what your brain is engaged in. Below is a list of actions or processes identified as requirements for Flow or ingredients in Mastery:

  • Visualize
  • Plan
  • Focus
  • Observe
  • Measure
  • Analyze
  • Strategize
  • Adapt . . . and finally
  • Learn, Memorize, Imprint.

All occur not in some abstract realm, but as observable, measurable electrochemical activity among cells—called neurons—in the brain and nervous system. The activities listed above not only lead to excellence in the physical realm–they have also been proven to stimulate the growth of new brain cells!

Activating Neurons

For me the most eye-opening and empowering example was this:  Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin brought 32 subjects to his Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Madison for brain scans. Half were Buddhist monks, each of whom had practiced meditation for at least 10,000  lifetime hours. Half were “control subjects” of similar age with no previous training, who were taught the fundamentals of compassion meditation for two weeks before the brain scanning took place.

All were placed in an MRI scanner and asked to think loving thoughts about people close to them, then to think compassionately about the human race in general. When the monks meditated this way, their left frontal cortex—the brain’s “positive-thinking muscle’– showed an average of 100 percent greater activation; two showed increases of 700 to 800 percent! The inexperienced meditators increased activity in that area by just 10 percent.

This study was the first to use an MRI to document that thinking patterns can be learned in the same way as skills for, say music or sports–by stimulating cell growth in the region of the brain where that kind of neural activity occurs. The scans revealed that the monks had “grown” dramatically more robust brain circuits than those who had not . . . and consequently had far more “brainpower” in that region.

“People are not just stuck at certain preset points,” Dr. Davidson said. “We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance chosen qualities.”

In a study at Mass General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MRI scans showed that regular practice of mindfulness increased cortical thickness in an area of the right hemisphere that we use to sustain attention and increase sensory awareness.

This proves that attention and self-perception are improvable skills that can be developed by targeted practice. Researchers also found that regular meditation practice may slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.

From Aspiration to Achievement

For me game-changing insight in these reports was the realization that literally everything that happens from the moment you  cross the threshold to the pool deck, or approach the shore of a lake is controlled by the brain—and that any rational objective can be brought to fruition by the application of ‘informed and strategic mindfulness’.

  • If you expect to improve continuously at swimming, you will.
  • If you interpret something in your environment—crowded lanes, rough water, not enough time, too-warm or too-cold water—as an opportunity. . . no matter that every other person in the pool finds it annoying or inconvenient . . . you will turn it to your advantage.
  • If you focus on finding and fixing an inefficiency in your stroke, it will improve before you leave the water.
  • If you decide to complete a 20-mile marathon—no matter that you can barely complete a 25-meters now—you will!

How different from the wishful thinking I had done for the first 25 years of my life as a swimmer.

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3 Responses to “How Mindfulness Can Guarantee Improvement”

  1. Julie Mills says:

    Hi, I’m Julie and I’m kind of new to blogging. I still have an AOL email if that tells you anything:) My question is this, do you use a free blog template (or is it called a theme?) or did you buy it somewhere? Lots of stuff to learn :) Thanks, Julie

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  2. Julie We invested quite a bit with web designers. Not possible for all. Many do it without professional help.

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  3. Gaby says:

    Interesting, never thought of it like that

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