At the end of the six weeks, I was extremely curious to see if all this work had any effect on my brain. After another brain scan, and some trepidation about what might have happened inside my head in the intervening weeks, I visited Barnhofer at the University of Surrey to find out. He had been analysing and comparing my two brain scans long into the night.
There was a result: the structure of my brain had in fact changed. And there were a few measurable changes to be seen.
One half of my amygdala – an almond-shaped structure important for emotional processing – had reduced in volume on the right side. The change was minute but measurable. However, what’s exciting is that this aligns with the scientific literature that shows mindfulness can reduce its size because it buffers stress seen in the amygdala. When we experience increased stress, the amygdala grows. I didn’t feel particularly stressed to begin with, but even so, it was exciting to still see a change.
The other change was to my cingulate cortex, part of the limbic system that is involved in our behavioural and emotional resonses. It is also important for the default mode network, a region that becomes active when the mind wanders and ruminates. In my brain, it had slightly increased in size over the six weeks, indicating increased control of that area. Again, this chimes with published studies in the scientific literature.
It also resonates with what I had noticed during my sessions. Over time I found I was able to keep my mind more restful – I was better able to zone out busy thoughts.
It was quite, if you will excuse the pun, mind-bending to see these results to my brain on a big screen in from of me. Just by being mindful, I had managed to increase a part of my brain that prevents my mind wandering too much.
A final note of caution – it is important to acknowledge that any brain changes we had seen could also be random. The brain is constantly changing anyway. But nevertheless, the studies suggest that the whole experience was a worthwhile challenge – and a process many people could easily benefit from.
Of course, for the changes to be long lasting, it’s clear I should keep pushing myself to do some of these “hacks”.
Am I going to continue meditate every day? I’d really love to say: “Yes of course.” That is, if life doesn’t get in the way…
Additional reporting by Tom Heyden and Pierangelo Pirak
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