Michael Mosley changes his brain with mindfulness
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
As part of the Horizon programme for BBC2, Michael Mosley set out to see if he could reduce his tendency for negative thinking. From the outset, it certainly seemed that this was a worthy question, not only as a means to improve experience and quality of life, but also in terms of life expectancy. Research on optimism by Becca Levy at Yale University suggests that a positive mental attitude can add 7 and a half years to life expectancy. To provide some context, Mosley states that finding a cure to cancer would result in adding 2-3 years to life expectancy, with that in mind, an extra 7 and a half years is staggering and a good basis with which to explore potential ways of reducing negative thinking and boosting optimism.
So Mosley set about this task by embarking upon 10-20 minutes practise of daily mindfulness meditation for 7 weeks, combined with, under the instruction of Elaine Fox, a neuroscientist at the University of Essex, “cognitive bias modification”, a computer-based task which, using images of angry and happy faces, is designed to train an individual to break the habit of seeking the negative by training to seek out the positive. Fox recorded 2 measures, 1) reaction times to angry v happy faces and 2) brain activity, specifically left and right frontal cortex activity. At the outset, Mosley was much quicker at reacting to angry faces and in terms of brain activity, there was greater activity in his right frontal cortex, which reflects more pessimism and anxiety. So, what happened after the 7 weeks of mindfulness meditation and CBM? When Fox took the two measures again, Mosley’s reaction times had shifted, he had become quicker at noticing happy faces versus angry faces, suggesting that he was noticing the positive more in everyday life. The greater activity in his right frontal cortex had significantly reduced, which Fox suggested was more down to the mindfulness meditation, given there is already a good body of evidence demonstrating this link. Alongside these objective measures, Mosley stated that he did indeed feel better and had slept better, referring to his 20 year battle with chronic insomnia.
Although I won’t go into the detail here, part of Mosley’s investigation also looked at the phenomenon of epigenetics - the switching on and off of our genes dependant on environmental effects - as a means to demonstrate that we are not just a product of our genes and that we do have the capacity to change our brains through our experience. Although life events can bring about negative genetic effects, they can just as much be a force for positive change and something that we can drive consciously through the experiences we can bring about ourselves – such as choosing to embark on 7 weeks of daily mindfulness meditation practise.
An overactive right frontal cortex is not only linked to pessimistic thinking, but also to depression and anxiety. The work of Richard Davidson at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Wisconsin can attest to this. Davidson has carried out a number of research studies that support the findings in Mosley’s investigation. Over a course of 8 weeks, highly stressed, novice meditators engaged in mindfulness training. After the 8 weeks they reported less anxiety and more energy, and this was backed up by their brain activity, which had become more focused in the left frontal cortex versus the right. It seems that with meditation, people are able to notice their thoughts and mood and modify them to avoid spiralling to negative depths. Davidson hypothesises that mindfulness may strengthen neurons in the left prefrontal cortex which is then better able to inhibit messages from the amygdala, the alarm bell of our brain that can drive us into anxious thinking and highly stressed states.
It was a joy to watch Mosley’s experience unfold, after years of pessimistic thinking and disturbed sleep, finally he had found something with which he could turn the tide. Not only that, I find Mosley’s openness to divulge aspects of his emotional experience so refreshing – not everyone would be so willing to admit the very natural and common feelings of negativity and anxiety and to hear that we are not alone in such experiences can be a great comfort. I’m sure Mosley has inspired many to give mindfulness a go and I can certainly second that.
The full episode is no longer available but you can view a short clip here.