Meditation is an ancient tradition that dates back thousands of years, practiced in all cultures around the world today. The word “meditation” is derived from the Latin term “meditatum”, meaning “to ponder”. When scholars look into the origins of meditation, ancient texts and artifacts reveal a strong presence of this discipline in the East. In fact, findings of this practice are commonly associated with the teachings of Buddhism, emphasizing spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Although the practice stems from several religious teachings, the goal is less geared toward faith and more toward achieving inner harmony. Mediation aims to induce a heightened state of awareness, create a sense of calm and peace, and develop a healthy sense of perspective. So, why does meditation work and how is it helpful? Specifically, what happens to our brains when we meditate? Let’s take a closer look at how meditation affects the brain.
What Is Meditation?
In recent years, the topic of meditation has received overwhelming popularity, with the focus of being aware and living in the present moment. The practice itself has received millions of followers, giving birth to a wide range of therapies and courses outlining the benefits and techniques. It has also been adopted in the workplace setting, by professional sports teams, and military units to manage stress and enhance performance. Numerous studies indicate that meditation can help reduce stress, manage anxiety and depression, and improve memory and attention. With the abundance of positive effects, mindfulness and meditation have even been prescribed by medical specialists in place of anti-depressants and other medications.
Meditation has become more popular, receiving millions of followers throughout the world.
Meditation is more than just sitting in silence and chanting a few mantras. It does not involve getting rid of all thoughts and feelings, numbing and clearing our minds of chatter. Instead, meditation is about learning to manage thoughts and feelings and observing them as they enter and leave our minds. The aim is to sit in the present moment fully engaged, cultivating awareness and compassion. Arguably, it is a skill that is learned and trained, only getting better overtime with practice and consistency. With meditation, we are teaching our minds to be more open, thinking with more clarity, awareness, and zero judgement. Although the concept seems quite loose and abstract, the benefits are staggering, especially how meditation affects the brain.
The Mental, Physical and Emotional Benefits
Just like how physical activity can make our bodies stronger, meditation is an exercise that can make our brains stronger. In fact, meditation affects the brain by changing and rewiring it to amplify positive performance in long-lasting ways. Countless studies point to mindfulness meditation helping individuals reduce stress and anxiety, increase focus, and even improve relationships. Here is a look at the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of this powerful practice:
Managing Mental Health
Stress reduction and anxiety management are one of the main reasons people turn to meditation. The practice allows them to control anxious thought patterns and manage excessive worry caused by external factors and flawed perceptions. When we experience both mental and physical stress, the stress hormone called cortisol is released at high levels. High levels of cortisol promote negative feelings of anxiety and depression, adding to fatigue and a cloudy headspace. One study revealed that mindfulness meditation significantly lowered cortisol levels over the course of eight weeks. Another study involving 1,300 participants indicated that meditation decreased self-reported stress, with the highest effect in individuals with the highest levels of stress. In addition, a large study with 2,466 participants demonstrated that various forms of meditation can reduce anxiety levels, like yoga [hyperlink to “Can Yoga Help Anxiety Article?”]. Finally, research from John Hopkins University showed that general meditation programs helped manage psychological symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression.
General meditation helps manage psychological symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression.
Supporting Emotional Health
Meditation is also proven to support emotional health as the practice has many positive effects on mood. When we experience stress, inflammatory chemicals called cytokines are released which directly affect mood, causing feelings of hopelessness and depression. A paper published in 2013 reviewed several studies, concluding that meditation can decrease the production of cytokines, therefore reducing depression. Another study looked at individuals who practiced mindfulness meditation in comparison to those who did not. Researchers noticed significant changes in brain activity in areas associated with positive thinking in those that meditated frequently. Headspace conducted a study and reported individuals who meditated with the Headspace app for 3 weeks saw a 57% reduction in aggression and 27% in emotional irritability. On the other hand, users of the app also experienced an increase of positive emotions by 16% and compassion by 21%.
Promoting Strong Physical Health
In order to address the physical benefits of meditation, it’s important to understand how stress can negatively impact body function. As we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system is directly affected as stress hormones flow into the bloodstream. These hormones in excess, such as cortisol and epinephrine, can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and increase blood sugar and pressure levels. They can also disrupt the immune system, deplete energy levels, and affect your body’s ability to relax and fall asleep. A study by Massachusetts General Hospital gave patients with high blood pressure a prescription of meditation techniques called the relaxation response. As a result, more than 50% of patients experienced a drop in blood pressure. Moreover, a 2012 study highlighted a link between meditation and a reduction in cardiovascular conditions, specifically heart attacks and strokes. In relation, meditation is also proven to boost immune system, especially in older individuals. A 2003 study shared a connection between an eight-week meditation program and stronger immune function.
Meditation prevents high blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.
How Meditation Affects The Brain
There’s no doubt that meditation provides a bountiful list of benefits for both our minds and bodies. But what exactly is causing all of these positive effects? What is happening to our brains when we engage in meditation and mindfulness practices? In what ways does meditation affect the brain? Research on how meditation affects the brain has been steadily growing throughout the years, with the help of fMRI and EEG technology. Modern technology has quickly advanced a more developed understanding of what’s going on in our brain when we meditate. These procedures that measure brain activity reveal a variety of neurological benefits when we practice meditation.
In particular, the main observed difference is how the brain actually stops processing information as actively when engaging in mindfulness. Meditation prompts a decrease in beta waves, which are generated when the brain is aroused and engaged in mental activities. Studies reveal that an overflow of beta waves can cause anxiety, stress, high arousal, and the inability to relax. On the contrary, meditation dramatically reduces beta waves in our brains, leading to conscious focus and improved concentration. The shift of the brain waves from a higher frequency to a lower frequency is what ultimately affects how you think and feel. Here are some other fascinating ways that meditation affects the brain:
Meditation Decreases Activity In The Brain’s “Me Center”
If you’re guilty of overthinking and overanalyzing everything, you can blame the default mode network (DMN) in your brain. The DMN is responsible for mind wandering – whenever we’re not thinking about anything in particular and drifting from thought to thought. Overactivity in the DMN is typically linked to anxious thought and worrying, leading to a decrease in happiness and depression. A study conducted at Yale University discovered that meditation inhibits activity in the DMN, causing less ruminating and negative thought patterns. As we begin to meditate on a regular basis and train this skill, we are essentially breaking down the neural connections with the “Me Center”. As a result, we are less likely to associate our negative thoughts and feelings to a problem with ourselves. Instead, we can take a step back and assess these worry patterns with a clear and rational mind.
Meditation lessens ruminating and having negative thought patterns.
Meditation Can Change The Physical Structure Of The Brain
Research on how meditation affects the brain reveal that people who meditate have larger brains than those who don’t. A 2009 UCLA study compares MRI scans of long-time meditators to those of a control group, showcasing interesting results. The scans displayed that certain regions of the brain, specifically those associated with emotion regulation, were larger in those who meditated. A 2011 Harvard study demonstrates how eight weeks of mindfulness meditation can increase thickness of the hippocampus, known to control learning and memory. The same study revealed a reduction of brain cell volume in the amygdala, regulating fear, anxiety, and stress. Not only are these brain regions altered, but participants actually self-reported higher levels of well-being and mood after meditation training.
Meditation Can Increase Brain Folds That Enhance Processing Speed
When you imagine the physical appearance of the brain, you probably visualize a pink blob with several coils and twists. These coils and twists of brain tissue, also known as “folds” are called fissures, sulci, and gyri. A 2012 study suggests that people who meditate regularly have more brain “folds”, speeding up and optimizing brain processing. Furthermore, the study explains that meditators have larger areas of gyrification, the folding of the cerebral cortex, than those who do not practice. Another significant discovery revealed a positive correlation between the number of years of meditation and the volume of gyrification. Evidently, the more years of meditation training translates to more experience with emotional control and awareness, thus higher levels of brain folds.
People who meditate regularly have more brain folds which speeds up and optimizes brain processing.
How To Get Started With Meditation
Meditation seems to have powerful and long-lasting effects on the brain, so where do we start? Experts suggest 2-5 minutes of meditation throughout the day, in a quiet and comfortable place either sitting or lying down. It is recommended to close your eyes and bring attention to each breath. The focus should be on how the body feels in the moment, moving with each inhale and exhale. For most beginners, it’s difficult to sit still in silence and do absolutely nothing. A great place to start is using an app for guided meditation, such as Headspace or Insight Timer – a simple way to learn mindfulness and awareness skills in a few minutes. Another great place to start is attending a yoga class, as several different types of yoga incorporate meditation and mindfulness practices. Once you begin to meditate regularly, you will see how meditation affects the brain and reap the powerful benefits.