This post was originally published on Finding Common Ground.
A Mindful Revolution
This blog post explores the functioning of the brain as it relates to mindfulness and effective school leadership.
We are in the midst of a mindfulness revolution in the United States and worldwide. Research-based studies on mindfulness have skyrocketed over the past thirty years, and mindfulness is now offered within many sectors of American society: schools and colleges, Fortune 200 and Fortune 500 companies, the U.S. Military, among major U.S. and international sports teams, and even in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Much of this interest in mindfulness is fueled by research on the workings of the brain, made possible, in part, because of advances in functional MRIs.
We are in the midst of a neurobiological revolution in the understanding of how the mind, body, and brain work together and function. One of the great scientific revolutions of our times is the stunning advancement in understanding the workings of the human brain over the last three decades. We are rapidly gaining insights into the relationships between what we think and how we perform, see the world, feel, and are prompted to act. To a far greater extent than we’ve realized, we have influence on of the shape of our brains.
The old assumption was that our brains stopped growing by late childhood and started to decline around age 25. We now know that both of these ideas are wrong. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its pattern and structure throughout our lifetime, and this highlights a different picture. Dr. Richard J. Davidson’s book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, describes how your experiences, mental activity, thinking, and motivation can affect that change. The brain is shaped by your environment, your experience, and your beliefs; it never stops maturing. The brain possesses the capacity for lifelong neuroplasticity. For school leaders, this means that the environment we co-create with teachers, parents, staff, the entire school community shapes us, and we in turn are shaped by this environment.
How you think, what you experience day-to-day, can actually change the brain’s physical structure. An often-cited study of London’s black taxi cab drivers shows how. These cabbies are required to remember the over 25,000 London streets and hundreds of places of interest. The hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for visual-spatial navigation and for consolidating short-term memory to long-term memory. When examined for this study, researchers found that the hippocampus in the brains of the cabbies was larger, more developed, and the longer the cabbie drove cab, the larger, more robust the hippocampus.
A similar study published in the journal Nature in 2004 showed increased brain tissue in the brain’s region controlling spatial perception in jugglers. In other words, the structure of the brain was altered based on environmental demands. Scientists call this new and rapidly growing area of brain research experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
How Mindfulness Practice Change the Brain
Studies show that mindfulness increases grey matter/cortical thickness in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is a structure located behind the brain’s frontal lobe. It has been associated with such functions as self-regulatory processes, including the ability to monitor attention conflicts, and allow for more cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness enhances grey matter density in areas of the prefrontal lobe, which are primarily responsible for executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation. Mindfulness studies have shown that the amygdala, known as our brain’s “fight or flight” center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice, addressing feelings of overwhelm.
Mindful Practice Pause:
Try this brief 30 second mindful practice pause:
- Sit comfortably with spine straight but not rigid
- Bring your attention to breathing
- Aim and sustain your focus on your breathing
- Notice when your attention is pulled away from this focus
- Redirect your focus when you notice that your attention has strayed away from its focus
- Stretch gently and notice how you feel
Creativity: The Gold Standard of Mindful School Leadership
Creativity separates managers from leaders. Managers direct; leaders create, they make something new. The frontal lobe, the executive center of the brain is associated with creative thinking. Mindfulness has been shown to increase grey matter in this area of the brain and to reduce stress. Mindfulness helps school leaders slow down, disengage from daily overload and overwhelm. Creativity requires slowing down. We have a better chance of thinking creatively when we are not focused on multiple, tiny tasks, when we have space and time. The practice of stopping, pausing, noticing, and breathing allows school leaders to re-center, recharge and regain mental, emotional, and spiritual centeredness in the moment. With regular mindfulness practice, school leaders are better able to be more creative in designing solutions to complex dilemmas. The intensity of school life has real consequences in burnout, chronic disease, and exhaustion.
The good news is that through mindfulness practices we can train ourselves to think more creatively without being swept away by a stream of mindless thinking. Mindfulness moments like the practice pause here is one way to jump-start creativity, enhancing your leadership skills.
Want to learn more about how mindfulness practices enhance your school leadership and your life? Read my new book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and Your School, co-authored with Kirsten Olson and published by Corwin Press (2015).
 Davidson Richard, J. & Begley, Sharon. (2012). The emotional life of your brain. New York, New York: Penguin
 How the Brain Changes When You Mediate by Jennifer Wolkin, Mindful.org. August, 2015.
 Sousa, David, A., The Leadership Brain: How to Lead Today’s Schools More Effectively, Thousand Oaks, CA. 2003.