Courtney Weaver is joined by Dr. Julie Brefczynski-Lewis from the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute to chat about mindfulness – how you do it, the benefits, and how your brain operates when you practice it. To learn more, visit:


Hey everyone. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to Wellbeing Wednesdays. My name is Courtney Weaver. I'm your host. I'm also the director over at WellWVU. Maybe you’re here at West Virginia University today with me. I have Julie Brefczynski-Lewis. Um, I had to ask her how to pronounce her name, make sure we don't butcher it.

And she actually, Julie, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your role at the university here? Sure. I'm a research assistant professor. And so I do research, but I also have a service role on a team of, of mine. We call ourselves the mindfulness squad and we have, um, a course called Mindful Steps.

That's sort of our flagship course, as well as doing standalone stress management classes. Great. And so one of the other rules that you're involved in is that the office of health promotion and wellness, which don't confuse that with well WVU. Cause we, we also do health promotion, but we focus exclusively on students, but the office of health, promotion and wellness, they focus a lot on faculty and staff initiatives.

And one of the things that they're doing is they've created a new wellbeing model. And along with that, they've created some priority action teams that look at each dimension of wellness that we've sort of outlined specifically. And so Julie, you serve on the one about purpose, correct? I do. I know purpose is something that we've always emphasized.

I think that, but something about our style of life, uh, in current times, yeah, it really puts us out of touch with our sense of meaning and purpose and doing mindfulness and connecting first, just with our breath and with our current state. And then. You have enough perspective to connect to that sense of purpose, which just imbues your life with so much more meaning and enjoyment.

So, um, we really like to emphasize that. Okay, well, good luck to you on that. I actually sit on the advisory council for the priority action team. You see each other? Oh yeah. Um, so let's get to the top. They get hand today. So you're you say you're part of the mindfulness squad and that's what we're going to talk about today.

We're on top of mindfulness, but then we're going to dive a little bit deeper and talk actually about the neuroscience of mindfulness. Like what is actually happening. In your brain when you're practicing mindfulness, which I love, because I love to know how the body works. I find it really fascinating.

Um, and so I'm excited to talk to you today. So let's start off first with what is mindfulness cause you hear it a lot. It's a buzz word. I think it's, I know you can get everything from like mindful cooking to, you know, mindful setting up your lawn furniture. Um, and so it's become a little diluted, but the real meaning is about doing things with.

With the kind of awareness and intention and the practice of mindfulness was actually developed. What, what probably the root of it, this modern mindful movement was started by John Cabot son. And he had cardiac patients and they were told after having a heart attack or some sort of heart failure incidents that, Oh, you should, you know, eat better.

See a dietician. You should, um, exercise more, go to a rehab clinic and cut out your stress, but they were never given any tools on how to do so. So he. Developed a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction that put together both Western relaxation exercises, Eastern practices like mindfulness on the breath and yoga, compassion practice, and things that give you the tools to be able to, um, be more resilient and.

Deal with stress in a way that can bring both relaxation and just that kind of fluidity to dance with life, I guess. Right. And so obviously one of the benefits is that it relieves stress. Yes. Um, but what do you think some of the other benefits of mindfulness are. I think it's really in the brain and because of it being okay, awareness of the breath and body, it kind of goes downstream from there, right?

Your, your brain can get caught up in circuits that are deleterious for your health, just to have, um, for example, what. Depression and anxiety, you get caught up in a rumination, which comes from the word, like cows chewing on ruminating and kind of chewing their cud. I don't know. I mean, especially if I wake up in the middle of the night, this totally happens to me.

I'm just like, oh no, I sent that email to that person and I think they misunderstood it and yeah. And you get carried away in your own thoughts. And in a sense of being kind of trapped and claustrophobic, um, by doing mindfulness practice, you no. Or just sort of saying, hey brain, I know that you do a lot of thinking for me.

You do a lot of strategy, imaginary conversations to see how that would go or hope this would go, um, with mindfulness. You're just like, okay, right now, the only task is just the place attention on the breath. And it seems kind of like boring, right. But it's actually not. Um, the breath is an anchor and the mind does what it does anyway.

It's still going to come up with thoughts and that's not a bad thing. Um, you just keep on placing attention on the breath. And whatever thoughts come up or emotions come up or bodily sensations, or you hear that bird or that airplane or whatever it is, you just notice and go back to the breath and in doing so you're.

Strengthening a mental muscle and this mental muscle is about sustained attention and that's the type of attention that we need to do things that are actually quite pleasurable. So if we want to sit and listen to a symphony, if we want to do our work and have a sense of like peacefulness yeah. About it.

Like instead of like, while I'm doing the dishes. I'm just thinking of a million things in my head, I'm actually there and I'm enjoying doing the dishes, or if I'm even writing a paper, I'm in the zone. I, you know, if I'm working on a manuscript, I'm, I'm like, wow, this is actually really kind of I'm thinking about, Oh yeah.

I want to add that. You know, that research that I read about it a year ago, I forgot about that. And then it, then it becomes what you're doing is what you're doing. Doing, and it's trying to multitask a million things. Not that you, sometimes you have to, but it's about being in the moment and enjoying what you're doing in the moment.

Right. And so do you think it's a skill that anyone can learn or do you have to have a specific mindset? No. And in fact, some of the studies have these super short intervention periods that boggled even my own mind, uh, there was one that I, I just presented a couple of days ago. It was about pain. And we can talk about that topic if you want.

But it was just a four-day intervention and these people were changing the, you know, their subjective experience of pain compared to a bunch of really good controls. And they were changing part of their brain. That links kind of the. Like the mental and physical aspects. So that kind of how you perceive your body and pain started to change.

And it's just like, wow. It was four days, and these are just ordinary people. Um, it's simple. I like to call it simple, uh, but, um, challenging at the same time. So it's simple to learn. Um, and one of my research studies, I looked at people I've been practicing for tens of thousands of hours. So these were like, a lot of them were monks, but not all.

Um, they, they had just been training for, for, you know, decades and, and some just like going off to the mountain and doing retreats and that kind of thing. And then I was comparing them to people just learn the practice like a week ago, like they were given like a piece of paper that had the instructions on.

They went home. We compared their brains. And what actually kind of shocked me is how similar the brains patterns. Just doing the meditation, like the attention network, which, you know, is what we need again, to concentrate on anything like writing a paper or, um, um, listening to a friend, anything like that.

That was the same, but how they dealt with distractions that was radically different. So practice makes practice makes a big, okay. Does it just, you know, it just takes like one set of instruction and you can probably do it. Which is incredible to think about, like have such a life changing way of living, be so easy to actually implement, but tough to remember to do.

Yeah, I think that's maybe the. The, there are some, like, you know, you could set like reminders and things like that, but that's half the battle getting it into, um, like your daily routine, even if like it's, before you get out of bed in the morning, you just sort of sit up and put a pillow underneath your sit bones and just kind of separate.

Yeah. I won one of the subjects in my research. Um, He had done, actually, it was kind of funny because the data or correlated with how much practice, like, like 10,000 versus 30,000 versus 50,000 hours. And it, nothing came out at first. And then we read a biography of this individual and found out that he actually had been so modest that he left out like, like 20,000 hours of the practice.

Cause he said it wasn't very good. Anyway, this guy was super experienced. It turned out and then everything correlated. But anyway, he actually gave us the advice that you should start out by doing less than you think you can do. So let's say you feel like, you know what, I can probably do five minutes of mindfulness do three.

And he think I probably can do 10 minutes do five. Um, everything he he's like, you want to come out like you, you're kind of. Like, yeah, I did it and it wasn't too hard. And then you can gradually increase from there. So that was his recommendation in terms of like, I mean, even if you have a super busy day and you take like a 32nd.

Period in between two intense tasks, that's gonna feel really different. It's going to make that experience of the second task. Feel experientially different. Okay. I, this is all advice I need to take, because when you were describing the, like waking up in the middle of the night, I was like, are you a fly on my wall?

Where I just think about like something awkward. I said to someone, you know, three months ago, and now we don't have the frontal cortex. You know, our prefrontal cortex puts the brakes on some of the crazy stuff. And when we're wake up in the night, we're kind of tired and there's less energy in our brain and the prefrontal cortex, our green is such an expense.

Sense Oregon to run. So this is my neuroscientist coming in. Like all of a sudden, I'm putting on that hat. The brain takes up like 25% of the energy that we produce in our bodies. So it's like super, yeah. It better be doing something important. So, so anyway, in the night, when we wake up, we don't have all the energy there.

And so the brakes are on and we can't put the brakes on that emotion, but with mindfulness, that system can work more efficiently. And that's something that we saw at the bunk. So like, it almost was like they would set their attention, like. I hate to use the word focused, but they would place their attention on an, on the object, which was a little thought on the screen in our MRI studies.

And then it's like, it would go off like, no, I put it there and it's just staying there by itself. I don't have to like put a lot of effort, but beginner meditators have to really like. We don't encourage that kind of tight attention, but in some ways, you have to do it over and over again. And, um, and sometimes you feel like, oh no, I've lost it, but, uh, you just gently place it back on it's okay.

And every time you do it, you're like, Flexing a muscle. So like when you're starting to do weights and you can do a lot of re-ups like, you know, it builds up muscle kind of fast. It builds it up kind of fast. And that's what you do with the, with the mindfulness. Okay. So let's have you put your neuroscientist hat on, uh, and talk maybe a little bit about what happens in the brain when you actually.

Dude. I'm so glad you explained the prefrontal cortex to me because there are times in the middle of the night when I wake up and I'm like, why? And then I go crazy. And then when I wake up, you know, the morning, I'm like, why did I think that was such a big deal? Yeah. Yeah. It's just unregulated. And you know, you get disorders or even, you know, I wrote a book chapter last year on the links between cardiovascular stress and like depression and yeah.

Except it's huge there, you know, people who are, if you look at the brains of some in, with, um, cardiovascular disease, it often looks the same as someone who has depression or anxiety. And that's often comorbid the, the actual, um, uh, diseases, but what's kind of interesting is, um, you know, it's, it's kind of like, if you can.

Reign that in and reign that attention in you have a protection against depression, which is correlated strongly with that rumination that we were talking about. So hang on to things, get out of hand when you don't have the prefrontal cortex working. And normally we like our normal baseline is. Pretty functional.

But one thing that, um, we'd like to talk about in the field is we actually want to take it up a notch and really get to the point of flourishing. Like we don't just want to get to kind of okay. And can adult. Um, and that's really where we become a little, like yeah. As long as I can kind of adult that's.

Okay. Right. In a way we. We don't need to set the ceiling quite there. We can, we can go a little bit further. And then maybe in the night, it's not quite so bad. Or even if you do have, like, I still have experiences like that. And then you get up in the morning and maybe like start instead of like kicking yourself.

You're just like, you know what those happens. That's the way my brain sometimes is at night. And that's the first step is just kind of. Understanding that, um, it takes time to make the brain operate in a more efficient way. So this task mindfulness is placing your attention gently on the breath. This requires the sustained attention network, which is, um, frontal parietal cortex.

Um, if I asked you, you know, I have a set of bells here that I use when I do online. Um, mindfulness, if I had, if I asked you, okay, just listen to the sound of the belts.

Still sounding. Maybe you can hear it. Maybe you can't at this point, but that, do you feel like that kind of just changes the mood? I mean like, like just ringing those bells, I feel calmer. Right, right. And so, I mean, you can buy these on the internet. I actually did a teaching con uh, conference for teachers, uh, some years ago.

And I brought these little things of bells and then I had all these teachers go because they're like, wow, that really made a difference in those talk. Like I could just feel the room change and, um, I'm, you know, this would make a huge difference in my classroom. If I could just get the students to like, you know, If you've ever noticed a Lake or river that like, okay, there's all these boats going and there's these wakes and maybe there's like ducks or something and there's all these waves and they're all kind of like, and then sometimes it'll just be a moment where things kind of smooth though.

Um, this kind of sustenance tension that is fostered just by a very short exercise, like. Placing attention on the breath or placing the attention on like a nice relaxing sound or going outside and just like breathing. It just sort of pacified is that kind of chaotic network that's happening. But it takes a little bit of, I don't know, like energy or practice to keep doing it.

So a lot of times I'll ring the bell at the beginning and then it's almost like, okay, you've gotten like this little sample of how to place your attention and I'll try to keep that up, you know, try to keep placing that attention onto the breath now. And yeah. You know what. Your brain is going to start thinking all sorts of crazy thoughts at times.

Just like it happens in the middle of the night, but. Practice removing your attention from that topic and placing it back on the breath that act of withdrawing your attention from an object. Your mind wants to think about like an imaginary conversation or something is actually a little bit difficult.

We, our brain does not like to change tasks if you've ever got, I have a toddler. And if you've ever tried to stop a toddler from doing something like they get mad and our brain sometimes once to like, sort out what's going on, you know, they want, you're bringing, like sometimes we'll decide it wants to solve a problem, right?

Like I've got this problem in life and I'm going to solve it. And I'm going to think and think, and think, and think until that is solved or I'm going to have this imaginary conversation. And I'm going to tell that person what I think am, or, you know, I'm going to. Calm that person or whatever it is, it doesn't matter if it's a positive or negative thing.

It's just that this act of taking our attention away from that and placing it back on the breath is. Activating this kind of network of sustained attention, which takes a little bit more energy. And if we can learn to do it in enough, if we do it over and over. So sometimes it's actually really, really good.

And I tell people like some people will be like, oh no, I just thought and thought and thought the whole time during this meditation, Awesome. You had S you have so many opportunities to withdraw and go back to the breath. And it's just like, you know, you're, if you, if you can, even though it kind of feels even a little bit of versus like every time it's like doing a rev.

Okay. I've taken it from that topic. Back to the breath. I mean, if you're at home, you know, maybe like it's gone so far that you want to like ring some sort of bell again or something, or play a little time. There there's some Chinese you can get, um, off the internet and you can just play it on your phone if you want.

But. It just is a network that needs strengthening and the way our world is set up, doesn't really reinforce that. I mean, it does reinforce, like you have to study to get a good grade on an exam and generally studying. Requires a sustained attention network, but a lot of times we're just like busy, busy, busy, busy.

And, and if we do have a moment, what do we do? We take out our phones and we just like I do too. Uh, it it's, it's, it's fine. If you can, you know, kind of put a little boundary around it, but we don't, we aren't really taught, and we aren't rewarded for that kind of. Activity of sustained attention. If we strengthen that network, even for a little bit like the waves of the, you know, you can see it in brainwaves, you can see brainwave changes too, that, you know, especially in the frontal cortex, which I'm in, Mmm.

You know, are, are, are, are a little bit more regular. Um, and the network that strengthened is this frontal parietal attention network. So you're making it stronger. You're making it more efficient data that have looked at like a whole bunch of datasets of meditation. They look at, you know, what in the brain has.

Change. And in those areas actually get a little thicker, like the brain, you use them more regularly through mindfulness. And I don't know, eventually your brain is like, that's a really necessary process for me. I'm going to build it up. And so it makes it bigger and stronger. And then all of a sudden in the middle of the night you have.

Literally more brain and, um, are better able to deal with that crazy, um, stuff that happens. Oh, wow. So for, so we always like to end the podcast with like a wellbeing snapshot, which is basically like, how can we apply or talk about, you know, the topic. In terms of what's happening today. And so obviously what's happened.

I mean, today, we're still in the midst of this pandemic, so, so do you think it's critical for folks to practice mindfulness during this time and how. Can they work towards it because in some ways things might be more hectic or more stressful? So what do you suggest? I really recommended, but in a really gentle, like, be really gentle with yourself.

So if you're, if you get like a should attitude, be really careful about noticing that attitude happen because it's gonna make it just another thing that causes stress. Right. So if you can just, you know, make some sort of reminder to just. Again like that, you know, the monk that we experienced in our studies said, do something less time than you think that's really important, especially right now in the pandemic is, is like, don't add like another thing, you know, just heck 30 seconds.

Listen to the dolls. And then when you're done and you have that, you know, a little bit, and maybe it'll still feel like there's a lot of thoughts, but it might be like your glasses or something, or a little bit clear. And in that kind of clear state of mind before you just jump off and do the things you need to do in the world.

Check your in, you know, set an intention for the rest of your day and make that if you can, to include what you've probably thought about as a kid, or maybe you still think about once in a while, the factor that you want to benefit the world in some way, or you want to benefit people in your life. Or whatever it is because that's activating a pro social network that is going to also be your friend in these times, especially since we're more isolated, uh, we're more, um, you know, Kind of apart from people, if you can be like, okay, you know what, whatever I do today, you know, can it, I hope it can help others.

And in doing so, you've connected, your you've been viewed your day with meaning and purpose. And those are so protective against depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, everything that I kind of. Went over with my, and in fact, there's a part of your brain that's involved in this meditation network.

There's this Japanese study that showed the more purpose in life. You feel the more this area also expands and gets bigger. So, you know, you're, you're just creating a little bit more of an expansive date. And I think in the past we really need, we can get really like, like boxed into our little, like, not only are we physically isolated, but our brains can sometimes be in a box too.

And I think that helps get, get us out of the box. Oh, for sure. Well, thank you so much, Julie. This was really enlightening. I think that you need to come back and do like six more episodes. I would love to do the compassion one. I love to tell her about compassion, and I didn't really get a chance to talk about.

So I would love to sometime sure. I feel like you're just like bursting at the seams with like, Useful knowledge that I think could really benefit students. So I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today and to our, you know, 12 avid listeners, so much for tuning in, and we will catch you next time on Wellbeing Wednesday.