My dad was a brain scientist and we discussed science at the dinner table.

This is why talking about the brain with my three-year-old feels natural for me.

My son, Anton, learned about the major parts of the brain when he was two …

and it was FUN for him :-)

He was astounded because he understood:

why he got angry,

why it was hard to calm down,

and why he did strange things that he later regretted.

He understood how his brain functions AND what he could do about it.

This can be a huge thing for a kid.

Especially when they understand that it’s not their fault that they do crazy things … and that they can become less reactive—even at times when life pushes their buttons.

Explaining how mindfulness and the brain works can seem a daunting task, yet it can be one of the best ways to show how mindfulness works for us and how it helps our brain to function properly.

Now … even if it’s fun to hear a two-year-old say:

PRE-FRONTAL-CORTEX,

I figured out a simpler way to explain the brain to kids.

I renamed the relevant parts of the human brain like this:

The Amygdala = Amy

The Hippocampus = Hippo

The Pre-Frontal-Cortex = Tex

Sorry dad ;-)

And I made them into fun animal characters.

Hence the hippo, fox and gorilla.

BTW: If you are in a hurry, you can scroll down to the big infographic.

Keep reading and I’ll explain:

1. The key players in our brains.
2. What they do for us.
3. How we can help them do a better job for us.

So that we get to decide how to respond in difficult situations …
… instead of reacting based on emotions alone.

The human brain is pretty amazing :)

This is how I explained mindfulness and the brain to my son and how I often do it on our mindfulness courses.

Mindfulness and the brain:

TEX

The Smart Sheriff

The Pre-frontal cortex (or TEX for short) is a newer part of the brain that helps us deal with emotions and make wise decisions. (1)

She figures out stuff for you and helps you make good choices. She’s there to stop you from doing crazy things, for your own good.

Tex is like a smart sheriff in your brain.

Tex helps us to deal with:
thoughts,
emotions,
and our actions in relation to our goals. (2)

She helps us plan and make good decisions. (3)

And she helps us with impulse control too, to overcome temptations. (4)

She’s important and you want to take care of her.

How Tex helps us

When we experience a thought or an emotion, Tex asks:

“Will this help us to reach our goals?”

If the answer is no … then Tex will stop you from acting. From doing crazy stuff.

If the answer is yes (as in this will help you reach your goals) … then Tex will allow you to act.

This is how the prefrontal cortex or Tex does her work. Sort of like a sheriff in your brain. (5)

Now … this how it works in real life.

Here’s a question to you:

Have you ever wanted to say something … but you realized that saying it would only make things worse? 

Has that happened to you?

I’m sure it has. And if you bit your tongue and managed to not escalate the situation … then Tex was able to help you.

Yay, sheriff!

How about this:

Have you ever felt really emotional and said something awful … something you wished you could take back?

Of course you have. We all have.

Okay so … at that time Tex was not able to help you.

Yikes!

But … why not?

This happened most likely because another, older part of your brain called the Amygdala believed that the stress you were experiencing was a real threat to you.

The Amygdala didn’t let Tex do her job!

Amy

The Jumpy Superhero

The Amygdala (Amy) is like a jumpy superhero who tries to protect you at all costs, but often mistakes stress for real threats … and effectively stops Tex from doing her job.

Now why do we have something like this going on in our fancy brains?

What is this?

It’s called …

The fight flight freeze response

During a stress response, we disconnect from rational thinking.

We shift gears to an impulsive, reactive “fight, flight, freeze” mode.

We lose connection to some of our higher brain functions like:
self regulation, memory, and mental flexibility. (6)

We have a hard time …
focusing,
remembering instructions (like conflict resolution skills),
controlling impulses,
and making good choices.

This is how evolution has wired our brains.

Our brains have evolved to react to danger and overwhelm this way.

WHY?

A long time ago when wild animals hunted us, our brains helped us survive by reacting automatically and instantly to danger.

This ancient part of our brains (the Amygdala) still sounds the alarm whenever it believes we are in imminent danger … and when the alarm goes off our bodies prepare to FIGHT, BOLT OR FREEZE.

The alarm goes off when we face overwhelming or strong emotions like fear, anger and sadness.

Like for example:
when someone says something unkind to you, you get all upset and the Amygdala—the ancient part of your brain—believes you are in danger.

ALARM ALARM ALARM.

We do crazy things when this happens:

A kid might say something cruel or unkind when they feel upset.

A kid might push another kid or a parent when they get angry.

A kid might freeze at school when overwhelmed.

A parent might yell at his kid.

(I know I have raised my voice … and I hate it.)

It’s really hard to make good choices or speak eloquently when your body forces you to fight, bolt, or freeze.

Right?

Right.

It’s no wonder kids and grown-ups do crazy things when this happens.

And in a way it’s really not the kids fault when it happens. Or yours!

But, how does all this relate to mindfulness practice?

This is the important part :-) This is how …

Mindfulness helps our brains to do a better job

According to several studies we can practice mindfulness to activate Tex (7) (the Prefrontal Cortex) and Hippo (the Hippocampus) (Tang), and reduce activation in Amy (the Amygdala) (8). Research also suggests that mindfulness can help Tex and Hippo grow bigger (7) (Tang).

While most studies on the neuroscience of mindfulness have been done on adults, preliminary research suggests that mindfulness might have similar effects on Tex, Amy and Hippo for children. (9,10,11,12,13)

In fact, some argue that mindfulness training is especially important for children, because the prefrontal cortex (Tex) doesn’t reach full maturity until around age 25. Research suggests that Tex’s development is strongly influenced by childhood experiences, and that mindfulness training might be an effective way to help Tex mature and do her job.

This way Tex & Hippo can help kids:
control their attention,
manage and respond to emotions and thoughts,
and control impulses.

So that they can better deal with difficult emotions and thoughts and ultimately make better decisions.

Mindfulness also soothes the Amygdala—the part of the brain that gets aroused reacting to emotions. (8) (14) And studies  have shown that people who are more mindful have smaller amygdalas.

Research also suggests that mindfulness-based reductions in stress are linked with decreases in amygdala size (15).

To sum it all up, mindfulness helps us double-check “bottom-up” emotional reactions that come from Amy with “top-down” attention from Tex so that we can regulate our thoughts and behavior. And Hippo helps us store this information for later use. (16)

Pretty cool, right?

 

When we’re mindful, we get to decide how we respond to life’s challenges and we can make good choices more easily. (17, 18)

People often experience enhanced relaxation states as a result of mindfulness, even over the long-term. (19) From my own experience I can say that the more I practice mindfulness, the more I experience calm moments, even if I’m not actively trying to be mindful. Scientists call this experience-dependent neuroplasticity, which means that we can shape our brains by what we do and experience. When we train focusing and calming skills, then we can become more focused and calmer.

Have fun! I hope that you enjoyed this way of explaining mindfulness and the brain.

If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness and want to practice with kids & youth to nurture joy, focus, kindness and calm I recommend my brand new self-paced mindfulness online training.

May you be happy and healthy :-)

Chris 

Here’s the infographic:


See also:

The Take Five Mindfulness Exercise

Three Senses Mindfulness Activity

If you are new to mindfulness with children we recommend our online courses: Get notified here!


Chris Bergstrom is the co-founder of BlissfulKids.com and a dad who is thrilled to practice mindfulness with his son. He is a certified mindfulness facilitator, and trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12. He’s also an executive consultant, and has taught meditation for more than 10 years.

Science links:

(1) Euston, D. R., Gruber, A. J., & McNaughton, B. L. (2012). The role of medial prefrontal cortex in memory and decision making. Neuron, 76(6), 1057-1070. LINK: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627312011087

(2) Asplund, C. L., Todd, J. J., Snyder, A. P., & Marois, R. (2010). A central role for the lateral prefrontal cortex in goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention. Nature neuroscience, 13(4), 507. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2847024/

(3) Gläscher, J., Adolphs, R., Damasio, H., Bechara, A., Rudrauf, D., Calamia, M., … & Tranel, D. (2012). Lesion mapping of cognitive control and value-based decision making in the prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(36), 14681-14686. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22908286

(4) Boes, A. D., Bechara, A., Tranel, D., Anderson, S. W., Richman, L., & Nopoulos, P. (2008). Right ventromedial prefrontal cortex: a neuroanatomical correlate of impulse control in boys. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 4(1), 1-9. LINK: https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/4/1/1/1610357

(5) Miller, E. K., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annual review of neuroscience, 24(1), 167-202. LINK: http://matt.colorado.edu/teaching/highcog/readings/mc1.pdf

(6) Shields, G. S., Sazma, M. A., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 651-668. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003767/

(7) Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213. LINK: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Britta_Holzel/publication/273774412_The_neuroscience_of_mindfulness_meditation/links/550ca4970cf27526109679f3/The-neuroscience-of-mindfulness-meditation.pdf

(8) Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-­based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83.

(9) Kaunhoven, R. J., & Dorjee, D. (2017). How does mindfulness modulate self-regulation in pre-adolescent children? An integrative neurocognitive review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews74, 163-184. LINK: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763416304067

(10) Zelazo, P. D., & Lyons, K. E . (2012). The potential benefits of mindfulness training in early childhood: A developmental social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Child Development Perspectives6(2), 154-160. LINK: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kristen_Lyons/publication/263756839_The_Potential_Benefits_of_Mindfulness_Training_in_Early_Childhood_A_Developmental_Social_Cognitive_Neuroscience_Perspective/links/5c5b12f392851c48a9beb2b0/The-Potential-Benefits-of-Mindfulness-Training-in-Early-Childhood-A-Developmental-Social-Cognitive-Neuroscience-Perspective.pdf

(11) Sanger, K. L., & Dorjee, D. (2015). Mindfulness training for adolescents: A neurodevelopmental perspective on investigating modifications in attention and emotion regulation using event-related brain potentials. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience15(3), 696-711. LINK: https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13415-015-0354-7

(12) Friedel, S., Whittle, S. L., Vijayakumar, N., Simmons, J. G., Byrne, M. L., Schwartz, O. S., & Allen, N. B. (2015). Dispositional mindfulness is predicted by structural development of the insula during late adolescence.Developmental cognitive neuroscience14, 62-70. LINK: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929315000663

(13) Tang, Y. Y., Yang, L., Leve, L. D., & Harold, G. T. (2012). Improving executive function and its neurobiological mechanisms through a mindfulness‐based intervention: Advances within the field of developmental neuroscience. Child development perspectives6(4), 361-366. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4238887/

(14) Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169.

(15) Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., … & Lazar, S. W. (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 5(1), 11-17. LINK: https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/5/1/11/1728269

(16) Kaunhoven, R. J., & Dorjee, D. (2017). How does mindfulness modulate self-regulation in pre-adolescent children? An integrative neurocognitive review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 74, 163-184. LINK: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763416304067

(17) Shapiro, S. L., Jazaieri, H., & Goldin, P. R. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction effects on moral reasoning and decision making. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(6), 504-515. LINK: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2012.723732

(18) Ruedy, N. E., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2010). In the moment: The effect of mindfulness on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(1), 73-87. LINK: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1221&context=oid_papers

1 Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicine, 40(08), 1239–1252.

2 Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-­based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83.

Attention

Baijal, S., Jha, A. P., Kiyonaga, A., Singh, R., & Srinivasan, N. (2011). The influence of concentrative meditation training on the development of attention networks during early adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 1-9.

Baijal, S., Jha, A. P., Kiyonaga, A., Singh, R., & Srinivasan, N. (2011). The influence of concentrative meditation training on the development of attention networks during early adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 1-9.

Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness Training for Elementary School Students. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21(1), 99–125.

Semple, R. J., Lee, J., Rosa, D., & Miller, L. F. (2010). A randomized trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children: promoting mindful attention to enhance social-emotional resiliency in children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 218–229.

Emotion regulation

Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the learning to BREATHE program on adolescent emotion regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252–272.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.

Stress

Barnes, V. A., Davis, H. C., Murzynowski, J. B., & Treiber, F. A. (2004). Impact of meditation on resting and ambulatory blood pressure and heart rate in youth. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66(6), 909-914.

Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M. T., Dariotis, J. K., Gould, L. F., Rhoades, B. L., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(7), 985–994.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.

Sibinga, E. M. S., Webb, L., Ghazarian, S. R., & Ellen, J. M. (2016). School-Based Mindfulness Instruction: An RCT. Pediatrics, 137(1), 1-8.

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools—a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Amygdala

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169.

Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W., Wallace, B. A., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-­attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-­meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., … Lazar, S. W. (2010). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11–17.

Hippocampus

Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-­based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83.

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36–43.

Prefrontal Cortex

Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicine, 40(08), 1239–1252.

More sources:

Mindful Schools – http://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/research/
Mindup Curriculum – https://mindup.org/
https://goamra.org/tag/executive-function/
http://www.calstat.org/publications/article_detail.php?a_id=146&nl_id=25
Healing the Angry Brain – http://www.academia.edu/5660269/Healing_the_Angry_Brain
Neurobiology Essentials for Clinicians: What Every Therapist Needs to Know – Montgomery, A. (2013).
The Whole Brain Child, Dan Siegel – http://www.amazon.com/Whole-Brain-Child-Revolutionary-Strategies-Developing/dp/0553386697/