Neuroscience and the Present Moment

A flower lives in the present moment.

Even though a flower doesn’t have a brain, like we do, it is wise.

According to Ann Betz, a Certified Professional Co-active Coach who has studied neuroscience on the graduate level at the NeuroLeadership Institute, there is a relationship between two parts of the human brain- the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala.

The pre-frontal cortex, or PFC, is your executive centre. It’s where you make good decisions and have high levels of understanding. The amygdala, on the other hand, keeps you safe in a dangerous world. It’s what causes a fight or flight reaction.

Humans need both to survive and flourish.

When the amygdala gets triggered, the body is flooded with adrenalin and certain neuro-transmitters flood the brain and prevent the pre-frontal cortex from being able to function effectively and manage the situation.

We don’t get to make a conscious decision about what constitutes a true threat. For example, getting called into the boss’s office for a little feedback isn’t a life or death situation, neither is a difficult parent- teacher interview, or giving a speech or taking a test.

Stressful situations like these can however trigger the amygdala and suddenly you lose the ability to think clearly. You either shrink, become silent and passive, long to run back into your safe retreat, or you shout, make threats, throw things and hit walls. Only later when the executive brain comes back on line do you feel regret and beat yourself up for either not having stood up for yourself or for losing it again.

Neuroscience does an excellent job of explaining what happens. But what can you do about it? How do you stop these amygdala hijacks? Great question!

You can’t prevent the amygdala reaction, but what you can do is shorten the recovery time until your pre-frontal cortex comes back on line. One of the most effective ways to do this, surprisingly, is by engaging in a regular practice of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is simply setting aside time to notice what is happening in the present moment- how your body feels, noticing the breath, noticing any emotions or thoughts that arise, not getting involved with them, not trying to stop them, not trying to change anything, just being present and aware of what is. Just be present. Just notice.

Regular practice of this simple technique calms the central nervous system, and repeated practice over time allows the brain to recover from amygdala attacks much more quickly.

Beginner Mindfulness Practice

Sit or lie comfortably. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice the air entering and leaving your body through your nose. Notice it filling and emptying from your lungs.

When you notice your attention has wandered (which is normal), simply bring it back to your breath. Continue for 2-5 minutes, or as long as you like.

Repeat at least once daily, but 2 times or more per day will give you better results. To make it a habit, link your meditation to an activity you already do frequently, like checking your email, preparing food, eating or brushing your teeth.

A more advanced practice is to be mindful of emotions, instead of, or in addition to, your breath.

A flower exists in the present moment. Bowing to the rain and wind, smiling to the sun. Even though a flower doesn’t have a brain, it is wise.

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