The Physiology Behind Intention Setting

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I'm a nerd, most of my friends know this. Today I let my nerd flag shine - I parooze medical articles for fun and straight up FREAK OUT when they align with holistic modalities I love. So here's a peek of that very happening:

‘Setting intentions’ is a phrase we hear often these days in yoga journals and new-agey blogs or perhaps in a passing conversation at our local Whole Foods. However, is there really any science to back up the claim that our thoughts really do manifest themselves in our physical world? Do our thoughts really become our reality and does meditation play a role in this process? Science says yes.

There are two key areas of the brain utilized when setting intentions. The ACC hub and the amygdala. The ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) and the DLPFC (dorsal lateral pre frontal cortex) combine to create the ACC hub. The DLPFC is responsible for gathering information and making sense of it all ex: problem solving (5). The ACC is associated with motor skills involving the follow through of plans. It is this dynamic relationship that is fundamental in the foundation of how our brain leads you to act on intentions. We will focus on the ACC hub to further understand how our intentions lead to action.

The ACC oversees our attention as defined as purposeful and sustained regulation of thoughts and behavior. The ACC does not fully develop until you are about 6 years old which is why younger children have a harder time with self-control.

The limbic system, the area that supports many functions including motivation, long-term member, behavior, and even our sense of smell, works in correlation with the ACC in relation to emotions (1). Ever had a scent  bring you right back to a beautiful childhood memory? This is an example of our ACC kicking in, a key area of thinking and feeling.

Meditation strengthens the ACC and allows a greater sense of calm during times of conflict and emotional upheaval. Some define this as emotional intelligence or reasoned meditation. Meditation neuro-physically strengthens our ability to stay calm and centered when stressed (2). 

The second key player in intention and motivation setting is the amygdala. The amygdala highlights the details of what is important in our experience or world around us. For example, threats, pleasantries, situation evaluation all take place here in the amygdala (3). It is important to note that this is most often subconscious, thus incredibly powerful. When the amygdala is in alignment with our limbic system we feel highly motivated and produces theta waves (4). Therefore, when our intention takes shape, there is a neural harmony or pulsing orchestration of waves. Theta waves are known for signaling a state of relaxation and are often seen just before we fall asleep, or REM sleep. These waves are also seen when meditating, especially using the technique of ‘no thought’ (6). This relaxation and working relationship between the amygdala and ACC physiologically explain how our thoughts can become our actions.

Intention setting consequently has a direct correlation to our ability to follow through with plans - making our thoughts a reality and meditation only strengthens this by harmonizing brain waves. Next time you catch yourself thinking negatively about the future, take a moment to re-center and focus your attention on the emotions, smells, and actions you will take to create a positive future. You now know the science behind why and how your intentions become our actions.

1. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19244.htm, 2. https://bit.ly/2NuUh2P 3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00429-005-0025-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573739/5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390747/6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/193587