The aim of this post is to explain - in the simplest way possible - how meditation (mindfulness is non religious meditation - using the word meditation as most of the neuroscience studies have been with groups who practice a variety of meditation techniques) affects our brains. And why its useful for the world we live in today.
So - to further water down Dr Peters useful analogy from The Chimp Paradox - lets consider that we have 2 dominant parts to our brain; (if you want the science behind this please buy the book);
The Chimp part.
The Human part.
The Chimp part is smaller but works 5 times faster.
The Human part is bigger but works 5 times slower.
The Chimp part wants to ensure the next generation. So it has 2 key aims; survival and sex.
Your Chimp interprets information with feelings and impressions. It gets a feel for what’s going on, and then uses emotional thinking to form a plan of action.
Your Human interprets information with logic and facts. It wants to analyse what's going on and take time to determine fact from fiction.
Things get difficult for you because while your Human is in the process of analysing and working out what's ' really going on ' . The Chimp has taken over, its filled in the gaps with assumptions based on hunches, worst case scenario thinking and defensive thoughts.
Have you ever felt yourself in an anxiety fuelled stream of consciousness? Or a frequent inner critic?
This is your Chimp taking control.
When the Chimp is in control your body releases hormones to help you with ' fight or flight'. The only thing is we, most often, don't need to fight or flee. Our body is giving us hormones that prepare us for movement, only we don't move. So what happens?
These hormones stimulate our thinking. Which for most is unhelpful to say the least.
So although our Chimp's instinct for survival was really useful years ago, in today's world it causes us more problems (ruminating thoughts) than it solves.
You know your Chimp is in charge when you ask yourself 'are these thoughts helping me right now? ' and you answer no.
So where does mindfulness, meditation & gratitude come in?
We are not going to slow our Chimp down. Its taken 1000 of years to be that effective.
We can speed our Human up a little bit but it still wont get close to the processing power of the Chimp.
Mindfulness and meditation help in 3 distinct ways;
1. By creating a pause, by interrupting the Chimp and giving our Human the opportunity to ' catch up ' and weigh up what is really happening before the emotionally driven thinking of the Chimp has encouraged us to form inaccurate and unhelpful judgements.
2. When we slow are breathing down we stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. This releases hormones that counter balance those which we release in fight or flight mode. This calms us down mentally and physiologically.
3. With regular practice we can increase our self awareness to a point that we become more aware of our ' unconscious chimp ' emotionally driven reactions and begin to see them for what the are; frequently inaccurate assumptions formed by lack of time to review the facts.
This helps us make better and more effective decisions in all areas of our life. Oh yes, it can also help us we feel happier as well. Because how many times in hindsight do we look back and realise that although ' it felt bad ' or ' that the world was going to end ' it often wasn't anywhere near as bad as it felt? When your Human can look back and see your Chimp for what it is; your personal bodyguard with super quick reflexes but with a tendency to overreact and cause you a host of unhelpful emotions that lead to poor judgements and actions.
We can't take our chimp away but we can change how we respond to him.
(As mentioned in the title of this post; aim is to simplify neuroscience. Although this is the case the core ideas have been supported by 100's of scientific studies. If you want to find out more, its all out there, just invest the time.)