Changing Brains and Hearts

2015-01-12

The human brain fascinates me. In the past several years, scientists have discovered so much about how the brain works, yet we still know so little. Everytime I read an article or watch a video about the brain, I have an increased sense of awe for what is perhaps the most wonderful part of God’s creation! Recently, the Harvard Business Review Blog Network published an article, “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain.” That caught my attention on two counts. One, because of my interest in the brain, and two, because of the importance of mindfulness for leadership.

Before we take a moment to explore how mindfulness changes the brain, and why that is important, let’s define mindfulness.

The dictionary describes mindfulness as being conscious or aware of something. We’ve all been in those situations where you pick up on subtle cues in peoples’ voices and body language. Tone. Word choices. Who people talk to. What the eyes focus on. What questions are asked (or not asked). How people stand and where. And so on. When you’re being mindful as a leader, you pick up on an immense amount of data that isn’t in any of the company reports or emails—data that could be argued to be more important than the official record.

When we’re not mindful leaders, we make poor decisions and create conflict. We’ve all been there, too.

A concept related to mindfulness is “presence.” I previously reviewed a book on this topic, Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire, by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar. They defined presence as “the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others.”1 Presence creates a connection with people that has a profound impact on who we are and on what we can accomplish.

I see a tremendous connection between consciousness, awareness, and creating deep, authentic connections with others. You cannot be present without being mindful. Read my review of Leadership Presence and you’ll see the benefits of being present. You’ll see, too, that being mindful is required.

So how does mindfulness change the brain and why is that important? Why would I want to change my brain. Read on.

The authors of the HBR article, “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain,” Christina Congleton, Britta K. Hölzel, and Sara W. Lazar, previously published research which found that “participation in [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”2

Um … OK. What does that mean?

In short, it means that people who develop skills in being aware of their environment and of other people, and who also learn to meditate regularly, experience physical changes in the brain that relate to learning, memory, emotions, self-control, and empathy.

Stop and think about that for a moment. In your mind, right now, list the people whom you want to develop as leaders. Now, ask yourself whether you would like for each of these people to be very skilled in:

  • Learning,
  • Memory,
  • Emotional intelligence,
  • Self-control, and
  • Empathy.

In fact, might you want to improve your skills in those areas? Would that help your own leadership?

Yes. Me, too.

The brains of people who are strong in these skills have a well developed anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). They “demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators. [A well developed] ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making.”3 On the other hand, people with a poorly developed ACC, “show impulsivity and unchecked aggression, and … perform poorly on tests of mental flexibility: they hold onto ineffective problem-solving strategies rather than adapting their behavior.”3

You want more of the former, and less of the latter, don’t you?

So, how? What do I do to develop mindfulness?

These researches indicated that meditation was the critical factor. As a follower of Christ, meditation means reading and contemplating scripture. It means praying those words back to God and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal insights about how they apply to daily living. (For me, journaling is also an important part of this process because it helps me keep my mind focused and not wandering to other topics.) These activities contribute to a peaceful, resting, trusting approach to life, people, and problem solving. It helps us walk with Christ daily.

David, whom God described as, “a man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14), wrote, “How blessed is the man [whose] … delight is in the law of the Lord (i.e. God’s Word), and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2, NASB). David noted the importance of meditating on scripture throughout the day and finding joy in a life focused on His Word. In Psalm 19, David wrote, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer” (v14, NASB).

May that be your foundation for leadership this year. I certainly desire it to be mine.

In the end, what we’re looking for is much more than physical changes in our brains. We need the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds to be more Christ-like.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Credits
Photo by author.

Notes:
1: Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire. Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar. Gotham Books, 2003. p. 3.

2: Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazara. Psychiatry Research, January 30, 2011. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

3: Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Christina Congleton, Britta K. Hölzel, and Sara W. Lazar. Retrieved January 11, 2015 from https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

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