Your Brain On Meditation
Inside each of us resides the most graceful and advanced biological marvel on the entire planet: the brain.
Yet in our society, there is little to no guidance on how to effectively operate it.
But it turns out there’s a powerful tool that can unlock the hidden potential of our brains after all, and it’s been around for thousands of years: meditation.
For millennia, meditation’s true power has remained untestable scientifically, a solely subjective internal experience, individually validated by each practitioner within their own mind. In Buddhist and Hindu tantric traditions, meditation was a way to attain Nirvana or inner peace.
However, in recent decades, advancements in technology have provided us with the tools to objectively measure the effects of meditation on the brain. Though a comprehensive understanding is still a work in progress, the initial discoveries are undeniably captivating.
Some of the most notable effects of meditation include a more youthful brain age, calming of brain activity, higher pain threshold, and the presence of groovier brain waves.
So is it beyond belief that the seemingly simple act of focusing our mind and practicing steady breathing for a brief period each day could genuinely have a profound impact on our overall well-being? Is it within our control to bring about changes in our own brain?
Let’s dive deeper…
As we age, the brain tends to lose mass, physically shrinking within the skull. That means the brain of a 60-year-old would typically be smaller than that of a 25-year-old.
However, a study comparing the brains of meditators and non-meditators discovered an intriguing result.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, employs MRI technology to examine intricate brain structures and observe brain activity while individuals engage in specific tasks, including yoga and meditation.
In her first study, Lazar examined individuals with extensive meditation experience, focusing on internal experiences without using mantras or chanting. The data revealed that meditation may have the potential to slow down or even prevent age-related thinning of the frontal cortex, which is linked to memory formation. Commonly, as people age, they tend to experience memory decline. However, Lazar and her team made an interesting discovery: meditators between 40 and 50 years old exhibited the same amount of gray matter in their cortex as individuals aged 20 to 30 years old.
In her second study, she enrolled participants who had no prior meditation experience and enrolled them in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program. Throughout the program, they attended weekly classes and were instructed to engage in daily mindfulness exercises, such as body scans, mindful yoga, and sitting meditation, for 30 to 40 minutes each day. Lazar aimed to assess the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on the participants’ psychological well-being and its potential to alleviate symptoms associated with various disorders like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, and chronic pain.
After eight weeks of the program, she observed notable changes in brain volume in four regions, with the most relevant ones being:
HIPPOCAMPUS: A seahorse-shaped structure responsible for learning, memory storage, spatial orientation, and emotion regulation.
TEMPOROPARIETAL JUNCTION: The region where the temporal and parietal lobes meet, which plays a role in empathy and compassion.
On the other hand, the area whose brain volume decreased was:
AMYGDALA: An almond-shaped structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response in reaction to perceived threats, whether real or imagined.
In this case, the reduction in gray matter was found to be linked to changes in stress levels. As the amygdala decreased in size, individuals reported feeling less stressed, despite no alterations in their external environment!
This discovery demonstrated that the change in amygdala size was indicative of the shift in people’s reactions to their surroundings rather than changes in the environment itself.
These findings suggest that engaging in mindfulness meditation may lead to positive changes in the brain’s structure, potentially contributing to improved mental well-being and a greater ability to cope with emotional and psychological challenges.
Practice makes perfect
You’ve probably heard the comparison between the brain and a muscle, suggesting that it becomes stronger through practice. Interestingly, this analogy holds more truth than you might realize — the brain, akin to a muscle, actually increases in size. Yes, specific parts of your brain can physically grow in response to use.
For instance, if I were to present you with autopsied brains of a piano player and a non-piano player, you could distinguish between them just by examining the part of the brain responsible for controlling the fingers. The extensive hours of practice cause the finger-related regions in the piano player’s brain to expand.
Similarly, focused-attention meditators experience growth in specific brain areas, not associated with the fingers, but rather involved in attention. This remarkable phenomenon demonstrates how the brain can adapt and physically change in response to different activities and practices.
WHAT DRIVES CHANGES IN OUR BRAIN?
Our brain possesses a remarkable ability to develop and adapt throughout our entire lives, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. This means that gray matter can either thicken or shrink, connections between neurons can be enhanced, new connections can be formed, and old ones can be degraded or eliminated.
In the past, it was widely believed that once the brain reached its fully developed state, the future held nothing but a gradual decline. However, we now understand that our daily behaviors have the power to actually reshape our brains. The same mechanisms that enable us to learn new languages or sports can also facilitate our ability to cultivate inner peace, creativity and profound contentment.
Just as athletes train their bodies to achieve peak performance, meditation is a form of mental training that empowers us to unlock the full potential of our brains.
We recognize that in order to run a 5k race or perform 50 pushups, regular exercise is essential. However, when it comes to our brain’s well-being, we often become discouraged if we don’t see immediate results. We might think, “I meditated for 20 minutes, and I still feel terrible. Is this hype really worth it?”
But it’s key to remember that the human brain exhibits remarkable plasticity, forming new neural connections on a daily basis. These intricate networks require reinforcement and consolidation through our actions, much like a path through a forest needs to be walked to prevent it from being overgrown and eventually vanishing.
In our hectic lives, finding time for meditation often becomes a challenge. The temptation to tackle one more work problem or send a quick email can easily consume our break time. However, you might discover that taking a 20-minute meditation break can yield surprising benefits.
When everything seems overwhelming, sitting down for 20 minutes twice a day will actually increase your focus and paradoxically allow you to achieve more.
Essentially, by repeating healthy behaviors and breaking detrimental habits, we can actively shape and build the brain we desire. The potential for neuroplasticity highlights the significance of fostering positive practices to foster personal growth and well-being.