Who Knew!

Neuroscience and Mindfulness take on Stress in the Real World, and WIN!

This book explores the neuroscience of mindfulness and how that knowledge and those practices were life changing to a group of university students.

Also available in Kindle Edition


Ottawa Morning with Robyn Bresnahan

Ottawa Morning with Robyn Bresnahan

A uOttawa course teaches students the science behind mindfulness We speak to the professor who launched the course, “Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Neurons to Wellness” to help students combat their stress. Click here to listen to the Jan 26, 2024 interview on...

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Saskatchewan Weekend interview with Shauna Powers

Saskatchewan Weekend interview with Shauna Powers

Who Knew! neuroscience and mindfulness take on stress in the real world, and win! Andra Smith was initially skeptical about the power of mindfulness training, but eventually the neuroscientist couldn't ignore its positive impact on people's brain. She set out to help...

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About The Book

Life is stressful and that isn’t going to change. How we deal with that stress could, however, be life changing. Understanding the brain is of the utmost importance and I believe it is the way we can turn around the mental health and addiction crisis that we find ourselves in at this time. Until I understood why and how mindfulness worked, I was skeptical. By learning the neuroscience and physiological basis of it, I firmly believe that getting this information to our teachers, medical professionals, and the general public, is essential to give everyone access to tools they can use to ease life’s stress.

Knowledge is power. Our brain controls everything we do. If we can understand how and why the brain creates behaviour, emotions and thoughts, we can be more motivated to change. A healthy brain is a happy brain. This book combines the empirical with the experiential, something I believe is necessary to fully grasp the power of mindfulness as more than a buzzword or fad. It chronicles many mindfulness practices that were used to settle the students at the beginning and end of classes during my 4th year undergraduate course entitled ‘Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Neurons to Wellness’. Each practice was tied to the learning of the brain and body that was occurring, as was the suggested homework. The book walks the reader through the course from the initial definition of what mindfulness is and is not, through the evolutionary development of the brain, to why stress affects us as it does, why we cannot think clearly when we are feeling angry, and so much more. It includes the students’ real-life experiences of implementing the learning and practices. We are in charge of our own brain health and this book can help unravel what is required for maximal well-being.

This book is about the journey taken by myself, as a university professor, and my students as we traversed our way through the neuroscience that explains why and how mindfulness works.

What’s inside


Part I - Introduction to the Course and to Mindfulness

Chapter 1 – We Begin

Chapter 2 – The Course: Setting the Stage

Chapter 3 – Defining Mindfulness


Part II - The Science/Neuroscience

Chapter 4 – Breathing and Nervous System

Chapter 5 – Evolution

Chapter 6 and 7 – Stress

Chapter 8 and 9 – Attention

Chapter 10 and 11 – Emotion


Part III - Neuroscience of Mindfulness in the Real World: Let’s practice

Chapter 12 – Purpose

Chapter 13 – Reward

Chapter 14 – Substance Use Disorder and Mindfulness

Chapter 15 – Concussion and Mindfulness

Chapter 16 – Self-Compassion

Chapter 17 – Nature

Chapter 18 – Listening and Outreach

Chapter 19 – Outreach and Anger

Chapter 20 – Designing a Study

Chapter 21 – Last Class….but Not the End

Chapter 22 – Be Kind


Why now? Why this book?  All I have ever wanted to do was to help people. I really believe that we are on a precipice as a society, and if left without climbing gear, we will fall off, and it won’t be pretty. As a university professor, I have watched students suffer from stress-related health issues for a long time. I have had the privilege of working with even younger elementary and high school students living with the fallout of stress. I would argue that we are facing a well-being crisis. This book is about how I provided the climbing gear to counter this crisis in a group of undergraduate students in a 4th-year course called “Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Neurons to Wellness.” It is about the community we created in our online classroom, and the impact it had on all of our day-to-day lives. I include myself in this last statement because I learned so much and was so inspired by how intensely these students consumed the material, but most importantly, the practices. Experiences tell the story more than any textbook ever could.

The title ‘Who Knew?’ comes from the fact that I had no idea how this course would unfold, if I could even pull it off, and if the students would like it. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and it was, but I had no idea how rewarding it would be for me and how the students would embody it. They jumped in with both feet, even the skeptics, and I am truly grateful for that. Speaking of skeptics, I was one. It was not until I learned why mindfulness worked and how it worked in our brains and bodies that I could embrace it completely as a tool. A tool to train our brains and our bodies, rather than just another self-help buzzword, or ethereal fad.

As a neuroscientist, I know just how important the brain is and I really want more people to be aware of this. Shouldn’t everyone know that their brain controls everything they do, think and feel? More importantly, we can consciously change each of these? Shouldn’t everyone know that we have an ingrained negativity bias that makes us focus on the one bad thing that happened in a day instead of the four good things? More importantly, shouldn’t everyone know that we can counter that negativity bias with the way we think, notice and attend? Shouldn’t everyone know that if the out-breath is longer than the in-breath we can calm ourselves more quickly than if it is shorter? Most importantly, we can train ourselves to do this more automatically with practice.

These are just a few concepts that we discussed in class and experienced in and out of class time. It was about learning and then implementing. My goal was to bring neuroscience theory into practice and support the wellness of students. They desperately needed this as their anxiety levels were through the roof. Common themes for each and every one of them were that they were stressed, worried about the future, and self-critical. “What will I do when I am finished school? My friends are all graduating, but I still have to do more courses. How will I do it without them here? How can I do all these assignments and still sleep?” We have become hijacked by stress and never feeling that we are enough. We are entrenched in the go-go-go lifestyle, and if we don’t seem busy all the time, then we are lazy. This is my attempt to combine scientific information, together with real-life experiences, to demonstrate how impactful we can be to and for ourselves, unapologetically, if we understand the power of the brain. I think for us to thrive as a society, we need everyone to know this information.

The neuroscience of mindfulness brought us all together to form a community that would wind up sharing, growing, learning, and being together in Zoom calls every week for four months…..and we have also met often since then, in person and on Zoom. As one student said in a recent get together, “My life was changed by understanding that 1) I am enough, 2) I can interrupt those negativity cycles with kindness and 3) stress doesn’t have to be in charge of me, I can control it. Who knew?!



This book is about the journey taken by myself, as a university professor, and my students as we traversed our way through the neuroscience that explains why and how mindfulness works. It is my attempt to combine scientific information together with real-life experiences to demonstrate the impact we can have on ourselves, and as a society, if we understand the power of our brain and mindfulness. I think for us to thrive as a society, everyone needs to know this information. As one student said in a recent get together, “My life was changed by understanding that 1) I am enough, 2) I can interrupt those negativity cycles with kindness and 3) stress doesn’t have to be in charge of me, I can control it.” Who knew?!

We have heard a lot about stress and we keep hearing all sorts of things about mindfulness. This book does a brilliant job of helping us understand how our brain responds to stress and what we can do to counter it. The stories of how Dr. Smith’s students responded to the teachings make it a compelling and heart touching book. Knowledge is power.

Rand Teed

About the author.

Andra Smith is a Full Professor in School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa. She is a neuroscientist who loves the brain.

Andra strives to empower everyone she meets, teaches, and cares about with the knowledge of how the brain works, how we have control over how we think, and that brain health is crucial to wellness. Mindfulness is a wonderful tool, but understanding why and how it works is her passion.

Andra Smith


email: andra@who-knew.ca