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My Meditative Moments

‘Mind Matters’… Prefrontal Cortex & Stress

by meditative - September 5th, 2016.
Filed under: Insights for Mindful Intelligence.

BrainFrazzleThe prefrontal cortex, which sits directly behind the forehead, is our brain’s executive control center. It is the most recently evolved area of the brain that controls our concentration, planning, decision making, error monitoring, etc. It also serves to keep the deeper, more primitive (or primal) areas of the brain like the amygdala, striatum, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and the brain stem in check. It is within the recesses of the brain where neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine, and dopamine are produced as part of the ‘stress response system’ controlling base-level emotions and impulses. Elevated levels of these neurotransmitters (or stress hormones) even under acutely (everyday) stressful situations has been found to significantly weaken the functioning of the prefrontal cortex while strengthening the dominance of our ‘primitive’ or ‘primal’ brain. In other words, our rational brain cannot make the normal (neural) firings & neural links that become interrupted by these high levels of arousal chemicals leaving our primitive brain mainly in control of our thought & emotion.

When the primitive brain takes over, we become more vulnerable to our forces of habit (striatum) and impulses (amygdala & hypothalamus). We now increase our tendency for inappropriate judgment and action. We may also “freeze up” or simply “lose it” under the neurochemical events happening in our stressed brain. Reality may seem to become obscured & distorted as “executive functioning” & “working memory” cannot effectively process the “data” it is receiving. Through neuroimaging techniques with brain scans (i.e. fMRI) the recent work of neuroscientists is revealing just how sensitive the prefrontal cortex tends to be under acute yet relatively high levels of stress.

Intervention strategies like meditation and other contemplative practices appear quite effective in helping us to better regulate our stress response system as well as regain critical self-control & executive functioning under stressful situations. The growing body of research work by neuroscientists also appears to support these practices with consistently positive results from neuroimaging techniques like brain scans.

Keeping our stress arousal chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol in check increases the likelihood that our “neural switch” for proper executive functioning & signaling will stay “on” while under stress. Regular & regimented contemplation practices like meditation help to strengthen & increase resilience in this prefrontal area of the brain. Even under stress, we can remain more “reflective” and less “reflexive” as practice helps to refine awareness and concentration to be calm, relaxed, stable & balanced through integrated training of mind & body…

In the breathing space of awareness we can create distance between the observer and the “event” under observation.


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