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The Brain Series: Prefrontal Cortex

A series on the Mindful Brain


Welcome to the Brain Series, a 5-part blog series where we will dive into the different sections of the brain, understanding their roles, how they develop in children and the way in which mindfulness benefits their functions. We will also share tips on teaching your children about their brain and discussing the positive effects this can have on their lives.


Understanding the different parts of the brain is important as it allows us to explore and manage our emotions more effectively. By knowing how areas like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex influence fear, pleasure, and decision-making we can develop strategies to regulate emotional responses and improve overall well-being.


Beginning today with the prefrontal cortex, the brains executive power, the series will continue with the amygdala, involved in the processing of emotions such as fear and pleasure. Following that we’ll cover the hippocampus, key to the retrieval of memories and finally, the visual Cortex, responsible for processing visual information.

The brain diagram labelled with prefrontal cortex
Exploring the Brian: Prefrontal Cortex

Kicking off with the prefrontal Cortex…


The prefrontal cortex (PFC) can be described as the brain’s leader or executive suite – The ‘CEO of the brain’. Located at the front of the brain, just behind the forehead, it is part of the frontal lobes that are the last regions of the brain to develop fully. It is responsible for children’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems, concentrate and control impulses and emotions. For our kids, this part is only just developing and doesn’t finish until 25. That’s why children often act on impulse and find it tricky to plan ahead and manage their emotions.


When children learn how to integrate and use their prefrontal cortex, they become better at thinking, problem solving, regulating emotions and empathising with others. 


The Prefrontal Cortex and Mental Health


The PFC plays a crucial role in maintaining our mental health, by orchestrating essential functions such as emotional regulation and impulse control. Variations in the structure of the PFC can be linked to several mental health disorders, including ADHD, PTSD and bipolar disorder. It is crucial for mood regulation and combating depression. Decreased PFC activity can result in negative thinking patters, and impaired decision-making abilities. Consequently, a strong PFC helps to manage stressors and foster mental resilience, leading to better cognitive and emotional wellbeing.

 

How does mindfulness benefit the PFC and children’s mental health?


For children, mindfulness is a great way to assist PFC development. Here’s how it can help your child:


Structural changes


MRI scans show that after just an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the prefrontal cortex becomes thicker. This structural change leads to better cognitive functions, like improved attention and emotional regulation. Mindfulness also strengthens connections between the PFC and other brain regions, helping the brain function more efficiently.


Stress reduction


Through mindfulness, our primal responses to stress from other areas of the brain are overridden by thoughtful ones from the PFC. If one is stressed or anxious, there is an inability for the regions of the brain that control thoughts and emotions to work. The PFC is deactivated and cannot govern or control anxiety. Greater activation in the prefrontal cortex leads to a reduction in stress and anxiety. There is an association between mindfulness and reduced levels of cortisol.


Reduced impulsivity


By strengthening the PFC through mindfulness, you can develop greater impulse control, which is particularly beneficial for children as their PFC is still developing. This is due to its ability to regulate and oversee other brain regions involved in emotional responses and decision making. Through mindfulness practice, children learn to observe their thoughts and emotions without immediately reacting to them.


Improved Focus and attention


Regular mindfulness practice has been linked to improved attention and concentration. This is due to mindfulness training the brain to maintain focus on the present moment, enhancing the PFCs ability to sustain attention. At Stix, we offer activities designed to help children develop focus and attention through mindfulness practices. One such activity is the balance exercise, which encourages mindfulness of the body, helping children to improve their concentration in a fun and engaging way.


Why should we teach our children about the brains’ system?


Teaching children about the brain’s system empowers them with self-awareness and equips them with tools to better manage their emotions and actions. When your children understand how their brain works, they gain insight into why they feel certain emotions and can then constructively respond to them.


Chloe, the founder of MindStation Coaching, talking about the benefits of educating children about their brains:


‘At MindStation, we believe in understanding our minds and brains because knowledge is power. By knowing the origins of our emotions and thoughts, we better understand ourselves and our responses. This helps children, especially those with neurodivergent challenges like ADHD, ASD, and anxiety, to identify, express, and manage their feelings. For instance, understanding that anxiety stems from an overactive amygdala, allows children to better manage their emotions through mindfulness and regulation.’

 

Educating our children about the brain


It is important for kids to understand their minds and brains, creating opportunities for personal growth and helping to navigate life’s challenges.


Mind Station, a partner of Stix Mindfulness, combine teaching & coaching, providing the fundamental building blocks for lifelong emotional intelligence. Their science backed courses use fun, colourful visuals and cartoon parts of the brain to help children understand the different functions and jobs. Using play and engaging narratives is the key to engaging children in complex, scientific concepts. These techniques can make the learning process engaging and relatable for children.


For the prefrontal cortex, the nickname Piko is used. He helps you to independently think, find solutions to everyday problems and empower children to become a better decision makers. Understanding the prefrontal cortex helps children recognise that impulse control and emotional regulation are skills they can develop in time, encouraging patience and perseverance as they practice these skills. Teaching children that the brain is capable of change and growth can foster a belief in children in their ability to improve and adapt.


By developing knowledge about brain systems involved in empathy, children can develop better social skills. They can understand and relate to the emotions and perspectives of others, leading to healthier relationships. Knowledge of their own brain can empower children to take control of their thoughts, behaviours and overall mental health. Thus, this boosts their self-esteem and confidence.


How can you support your child to develop their prefrontal cortex?

Start by adding mindfulness practice to your daily routine, for example before bed, and witness the benefits on their attention, stress levels, and reactions to emotions!





Tune in next week for the next part of our series on the amygdala, home to our emotions and feelings.

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