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The Neurobiology of Mindfulness

A client came in for a massage session the other day and said, “I wondered if this was your blog because the last post was from October of 2010.”  I was embarrassed to say the least. I haven’t been writing much on here because I’ve been busy writing in Grad school for the last two years. It’s been a very interesting and healing journey and I am grateful for Santa Barbara Graduate Institute and their clinical somatic psychology program. The things I have learned have given me a greater understanding of what constitutes “holistic health”.

Apropos my client’s ginger comment about my “out of date blog”, I thought I would attach the thesis I wrote for my Masters Capstone and share some tid-bits about how Mindfuless practices IMPROVE EVERYTHING, INCLUDING  BRAIN FUNCTION AND PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.  This is good stuff…..  I hope you find this interesting and appreciate you taking the time to explore your own healing process.

Best Wishes,

Romi

Cultivating Interpersonal Attunement through Sensory Awareness & Mindfulness Practice: The Neurobiology of Intimate Relationships

Abstract

Current research shows that individuals who practice mindfulness meditation on a consistent basis improve their quality of life through the cultivation of inner attunement, loving kindness, and empathy (Seigel, 2007).  The benefits of meditation are not dependent on religious belief systems alone, and research supports the viability of myriad approaches (2007).  Emotional dysregulation plays a significant role in interpersonal discrepancies experienced between two people in an intimate partnership.  Current neuroscience has revealed that mindfulness-based meditation practices are able to effectively regulate mood disturbances due to significant neurological pathway alterations in the brain (Hanson, 2009).   This paper posits that neurobiological changes induced by mindfulness meditation are beneficial, and support individuals to sustain healthy, romantic relationships.  Inner attunement will be observed as a barometer for interpersonal success.  Emotional regulation, communication, receptivity, attention, empathic awareness, and proprioception will be examined through the somatic lens of mind/body holism, in order to illuminate how mindfulness practice is a gateway for interpersonal health and longevity.

Key Words: Mindfulness, Meditation, Sensory Awareness, Inner Attunement, Empathy, Attention, Relationships, Neurobiology, Mirror Neurons, Emotional Regulation

Cultivating Interpersonal Attunement through Sensory Awareness & Mindfulness: The Neurobiology of Intimate Relationships

For thousands of years, human beings have struggled to maintain stable intimate relationships.   Emotional dysregulation plays a significant role in how people interact in an adult partnership.  Relational dynamics can evoke a wellspring of neurobiological responses that inhibit inner and outer attunement.  According to Siegle, an individual’s inner attunement is defined as the ability to be mindfully centered, with integrated left and right brain hemispheres (2007).  Interpersonal attunement relates to a felt sense of empathy for another person, as well as an experience of “coherence”    (2007, p. 164).  When human beings experience coherence, they feel more connected, harmonious, receptive, compassionate, and empathic (2007).  Mankind has not yet discovered a universal panacea to heal all relational challenges, however we have fostered ancient esoteric methodologies to support health and wellbeing.   Neuroscience supports the hypothesis that individuals who meditate are able to effectively regulate mood disturbances by way of neuropathy modulation (Hanson, 2009).  According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the operational working definition of mindfulness is, “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (2003, p. 145).

The roots of meditation can be traced back to many cultures, and most world religions adopt the belief that it is important for human beings to stay present in the moment (Siegle, 2007).  Meditation is interconnected with the religious context within which it is practiced.  Written records of meditation date back to 1500 BC in Hindu Vedantism, and it is believed that from 500-600 BC, Taoists in China and Buddhists in India began to develop culture-specific practices (Hanson, 2009).  Although meditation is often associated with a religious orientation, mindfulness-based skills can be taught outside of any particular group affiliation (2007).

Mind/Body Holism

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, perspectives began to evolve in psychotherapeutic and holistic communities (Benz & Weiss, 1989).  The somatic theory of Mind/Body

Holism suggests that people relate to themselves and each other as a unified and integrated whole, not separating mind and body as disparate entities (Kurtz, 1990).  According to Selver et al., (2009) the body is an instrumental part of meaningful, lasting psychological change.  Mind/body holism postulates that there is not something intrinsically wrong with a person, nor something that needs to be fixed.  Similar to Eastern spiritual philosophers, Charlotte Selver, Ron Kurtz, and many other body-centered therapists believed that people strive for wholeness by way of reorganizing the core material that is no longer appropriate for them in the present moment (1990).  Mind/body holism is theoretically congruent with mindfulness-based approaches.  It suggests that when individuals observe their experiences, their interactions with others, and their feelings during such experiences, they are more capable of seeing themselves holistically, and more likely to cultivate inner attunement and interpersonal equanimity (1990).

Despite the theoretical benefits of mind/body holism, approaches reflected through its proverbial lens are not widely promulgated across most cultures (Kurtz, 1990).  In the United States for example, life is fast-paced and production-oriented.  It may be challenging for a person unfamiliar with mind/body holism, to actively pursue a mindfulness practice for personal or interpersonal enrichment.  Although mindfulness is represented through mainstream media, and various cultures embrace ancient approaches, a majority of the world’s population does not view mind/body holism as an intrinsic way of life (Hölzel, 2008).

In order to elucidate the relationship between mindfulness, inner attunement, and relationships, I will review literature relating to neurobiology and emotional regulation. The first section will describe benefits of mindfulness practice as they pertain to intimate relationships, including: emotional regulation, communication, receptivity, attention, listening skills, empathic awareness, and proprioception.  In the second section, the neurobiological implications of mindfulness practice will be applied to a somatic-based approach called Sensory Awareness, which is considered a vehicle for interpersonal development.  The intrapersonal limitations of Sensory Awareness will also be examined.

The Benefits of Mindfulness: Using the “Right” Brain in Relationship

It is said that what moves through your mind can sculpt a person’s brain (Hanson, 2009).  According to Schore (2007), unconscious emotions drive all human emotion. Being able to regulate emotion supports balanced living and increases intrapersonal attunement and interpersonal ease (Hanson, 2009).  Mindfulness practices directly shape the activity and growth of the parts of the brain responsible for relationships, emotional regulation, and psychological response to stress (Siegle, 2007).  Areas of the brain activated during meditation include the limbic regions, temporal lobes, medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulated cortex, and the precuneus (Brefczynski-Lewis, Davidson, Johnstone, Lutz, 2008).  In their meditation study, Brefczynski-Lewis et al. (2008) confirmed that there is stronger activity in the right hemisphere than in the left hemisphere.  Mindfulness practice supports individuals to experience the moment for its own sake, without judgment or analysis, by activating the more self-reflective part of the brain, also known as the right cortex (Levine, 2011).  Right brain function cultivates inner attunement by supporting people to attend to feelings without the neurobiological disadvantage of emotional dysregulation (Siegel 2007).

When we operate from a place of mindfulness, we balance the verbal and non-verbal sections of the brain, are less driven by fear, and are more capable of experiencing inner attunement (Windinger, 2011).  According to Levine (2011), non-verbal [right] vs. verbal [left] parts of the brain function individually.  Life occurrences, including trauma, can consistently activate a person’s limbic system, also known as the “animal” part of the brain.  Limbic activation can lead to emotional dysregulation and can give a person the feeling that the world is not a safe place (2011).  In terms of intimate relationships, nervous system modulation becomes a valuable asset when a lover is provoked by inter-personal disputes.  What ordinarily would set off an aggravating limbic system response, can be dealt with in a more regulated manor when an individual is more attuned with themselves.

Neurobiological imaging studies of empathy have shown that by observing another person’s emotional state, part of the neural circuitry underlying the same state becomes active in oneself, whether it is disgust, pain or social emotions (Brefczynski-Lewis, 2008).  Mirror neurons in the brain inform the social engagement process, and suggest that we are able to perceive intentional states of others (Iacoboni & Siegel, 2006).  This perception supports the notion that an individual may become positively or negatively affected by the intentional state of those around them, and that interpersonal quality of life may be improved when inner attunement is evident.  Moreover, the well being of one partner in an intimate relationship is inextricably linked to the well being of the other.

A larger interpersonal field of intimacy is able to bloom when people become more mindful.  The emotional awareness of the right brain can support a person to tune into subtle emotional changes, a beneficial tool for preventing interpersonal miscommunication and strife (Siegle, 2007).  Mindfulness practices support couples to become more attentive, therefore ameliorating communication and attenuating ineffective defensive structures. According to Selver (2009), mindfulness nourishes the attention centers of the brain and opens people up to their inner indicator, also known as intuition.  One study held by the National Academy of Sciences analyzed how attention is mapped throughout the brain.  The main control center is located in the intraparietal sulcus, and is what gives people the ability to shift their attention  (Anderson, J., Ferguson, M., Lopez-Larson, M., Yurgelun-Todd, D., 2010).

Increased attentiveness also supports individuals to improve their listening skills.  In terms of an intimate relationship, Selver believed that most people want to, “do something to or for their partner, instead of just being there for him or her” (2009, p. 36).  She believed that this kind of effort leads to negative reactions within relational exchanges. When individuals are able to compassionately receive their partner’s words, and can empathize with their belief systems, mindfulness practice becomes a tool to soften the arrows of verbal attack (2009).  Daniel Levison, a staff researcher in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, meditated for three months as part of a study about brain phenomenon.  After three months, Daniel stated, “I am a much better listener. I don’t get lost in my own personal reaction to what people are saying” (Hölzel, 2010, p.1).  A female client of Charlotte Selver, the pioneer of a somatic-based approach called Sensory Awareness, had a similar experience after committing to a mindfulness practice.  After working with Selver for a few months, Selver’s client “Joan” noticed an improvement in her ability to listen to her husband (Selver, 2009).  Joan would ordinarily interrupt her husband when he spoke slowly and could not wait for him to finish his sentences.  After practicing Sensory Awareness for consecutive months however, her attention span increased and she felt more patient.  When Joan’s capacity for retaining and receiving information increased, her husband also became a more effective listener (2009).  Consistent mindfulness practice supported Joan and her husband to restructure their communication patterns and experience more ease in their relationship.

Integrating sensation-based awareness practices also improves connectedness by awakening the propriocetive capacity of an individual (Selver, 2009).  Proprioception is defined as the awareness of the position of one’s body (http://dictionary.com).  Carmodyc, J., et al. (2011) implemented a study on the positive effects of meditation on the brain. Seventeen individuals without meditation experience underwent Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs for eight weeks.  This was a controlled longitudinal study that investigated gray matter concentration in various areas of the brain, both before and after the MBSR programs occurred.  Results showed an increase in gray matter concentration and increased function in the areas involving the regions of their brains involving learning, memory processes, and emotional regulation (2011).  These areas include the left hippocampus, posterior cingulated cortex, temporal-parietal junction, and the cerebellum.

Overall, one of the most important benefits of meditation is an increased sense of empathy, love, and sensitivity (Psychiatry Research, 2011).  Such prolific changes in the brain, when present in a close interpersonal exchange, can improve the quality of connection between two people and increase the longevity of a relationship.  When an individual is able to regulate her emotions, and retain and receive information with greater ease, she is more likely to empathically interact with her companion.  One study revealed that when a person feels a sense of compassion, the insula cortex becomes activated and its function improves (Brefczynski-Lewis,Davidson, Johnstone, Lutz, 2008).

Compassion for our own fear and shame opens us to others… Love is our true nature, but as we have seen, it is covered over by a protective layer of fear. Even though this love is innate, the [Buddhist] path also uses systemic trainings to cultivate this love. They strengthen our capacity for love, compassion, joy, and peace. (Kornfield, 2009, p. 386)

Sensory Awareness

Various modalities share the core intention of supporting individuals to feel more in balance with their inner selves. Holzel describes mindfulness practice when stating,

The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations…But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift. (2011, p. 1)

Included in the global amalgam of mindfulness-based approaches is Sensory Awareness, developed by the late Charlotte Selver in the mid 1950’s (Selver, 2009).  Sensory Awareness is a body-centered meditation approach that draws from the spiritual principles of Taoism and Buddhism (Benz & Weiss, 1989), and is an effective healing tool that addresses somatic dysregulation, including mood and anxiety disturbances.  Similar to Buddhist meditation traditions, Sensory Awareness assists people to cultivate mindfulness and bring awareness into everything they experience (Kabat-Zinn, J., 2003).  Selver, like many other body-centered practitioners, strived to shift the old paradigm of psychological understanding.  Her method theoretically drew from mind/body holism, and was bolstered by new forms of social expression that supported independence and mutuality (1989).  Selver believed that allowing things to “take their course” assists couples to work creatively and patiently (2009, p. 36).

Embodied mindfulness practices can shift perspectives from self-oriented to other-oriented  (Brefczynski-Lewis, Davidson, Johnstone, & Lutz, 2008).  One of the fundamental principles of Selver’s work was to “learn to give up this doing” (Selver, 2009, p.36).  Rather than teaching people spiritual rhetoric that emphasized the process of ‘letting go’, Selver was interested in the process of ‘taking in’ (2009).  Based on the work of Elsa Gindler and Heinrich Jacoby, Sensory Awareness advocates various body-centered experiments to assist people to get in touch with their most authentic state of being.  Just as Buddhist practitioners focus on “Loving Kindness” (Kornfield, 2009), Sensory Awareness practitioners focus on “Conscious Sensing” (Selver, 2009).

Similar to other mindfulness practices, Sensory Awareness also utilizes sitting and breathing practices. Practitioners can close their eyes and become receptive to whatever they experience.  The key intention of this practice is to allow sounds and sensations to enter freely, so they can be experienced in a holistic way, rather than being analyzed and immediately identified (2009).  In almost all contemplative practices, there is an initial use of the breath as a focal point, which aids in the centering of the mind (Siegel, 2007).  According to Siegel (2007), breath is a major factor contributing to brain activity and regulation.  With as little judgment as possible, a Sensory Awareness practitioner observes, notices, brings awareness, and attempts to accept things in the present moment.

Despite current research that advocates somatic-based mindfulness practices, there is a global avoidance of sensation awareness that has reached epidemic proportions.  Humanity’s pervasive disinterest in sensing has become a limiting factor for this work to be effectively utilized for interpersonal development on a global level.  Trauma trains the body to avoid feeling processes (Kurtz, 1990).  Given the high number of traumatized people on this planet, mind-body disconnection is commonplace (1990).  Disembodied individuals are perfect candidates for Sensory Awareness, however their willingness is imperative. For individuals unwilling or unable to practice on their own, facilitation may be necessary, as it can create a safe environment for people to address core issues.  Group-based Sensory Awareness work can take participants to a deeper level of healing given the interpersonal context (Selver, 2009).

Some may argue that sensation-based meditation approaches are limiting for some bodies, including immobile individuals, or individuals incapable of movement altogether.  Sensory awareness is indiscriminate, and is an innate practice of conscious being.  It is a mindfulness practice that asks people to experience life from a space of receiving and allowing.  Participants can delve as actively or inactively as they choose, as long as they are experiencing themselves from the inside out.  Similar to various meditation approaches, observation is the key, however the participant is also not limited to sitting alone.  Sensory Awareness is active and inactive all at the same time.

Discussion

Humanity is more affected by emotional regulation and attunement than we may have previously thought.  Current research now confirms that individuals can markedly improve their quality of life when they are committed to a mindfulness-building routine.  Neuroscience confirms that the processes of the mind extend beyond the individual, and that our perception is part of a large interconnected matrix (Weininger, 2011).  Our efforts to become more attuned can be profoundly received by the people most close to us, and mirror neurons remind us that we are implicitly connected to other human beings.

Mindfulness meditation improves romantic relationships by nurturing: emotional regulation, communication, receptivity, attention, listening skills, and proprioception.

An individual’s ability to be empathic and sensitive to the needs of their partner plays an important role in the longevity of any relationship.  The mindfulness practice of Sensory Awareness can support balanced, attuned living and is an effective tool for interpersonal communication.  Individuals who practice Sensory Awareness are more likely to experience supportive intimate relationships, and to have positive interactions with others. There are limitations to mindfulness practices such as Sensory Awareness, due to the fact that awareness practices are not commonplace, nor unilaterally accepted by many cultures. Sensory Awareness requires a willingness to feel and experience sensations and this process can be difficult for traumatized individuals.

Intrapersonal harmony can ensue when we slowly and attentively allow the waves of mindfulness to roll through our daily lives.  People can make a dramatic difference in their social environment when they commit to healing themselves at an intrapersonal level.  The importance of mindful development cannot be stressed enough and it is humanity’s duty at this juncture to improve holistic infrastructure, develop effective psycho-educational environments, and cultivate the courage to look within.

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