How meditation changes your brain
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. I can already see the eyes rolling – here comes another hippy preaching about the benefits of meditation. Well let me put your mind at ease: I am not looking for converts here, I’m more interested in drilling down into what actually happens within the brain when we meditate.
It is widely believed that the rest your brain experiences when in a meditative state is deeper than even the deepest state of sleep – so it’s fair to say, at best, you’ll come round feeling somewhat energised. But what about the science? Does meditation truly have a literal impact on the wiring of the brain and, if so, can it really change the way we think?
What is meditation?
First, let’s take a look at what we mean when we talk about meditation. Put simply, meditation is the process of clearing the mind to attain a deep feeling of peace and relaxation – or as some Buddhists describe it, “focusing on the space between the thoughts.”
Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not the act of switching off the mind, but rather focussing it in order to achieve a state of consciousness free from scattered thought patterns.
Herbert Benson M.D., in his book “The Relaxation Response,” looks at many meditation techniques around the world and notes that all embrace four essential elements:
1. Find a quiet place
2. Find a comfortable position
3. Have something to keep the mind engaged (e.g., a mantra or simply counting breaths)
4. Adopt a passive attitude
With regular work, meditation has the potential to change a person’s outlook on the world. After all, a calmer mind and clearer perception can only be a positive when taking on the daily rigmaroles of modern life.
But these outcomes are not purely psychological. In fact, there is clear scientific evidence to suggest that meditation can change the way the brain works – helping to rid us of feelings of stress, worry, and anxiety while improving our overall health.
Here comes the science
A group of Harvard neuroscientists came together recently to take an in-depth look at the impact meditation has on the brain, and their findings may surprise even the most sceptical of readers.
Using MRI scans, the neuroscientists were able to map brain activity during a period of meditation and they immediately noticed that the brain was processing far less information than usual.
The frontal lobe – responsible for planning, emotions and self-awareness – essentially ‘goes offline’ during meditation, processing very little information, if any. The parietal lobe, which processes sensory information about our surroundings, slows down completely. And the reticular, which puts the brain on alert, deadens its arousal signal – which helps to explain the feeling of tranquillity cited by those who frequently meditate.
Similar studies have also shown that regular meditation can have a lasting effect on other areas of brain function. There are two key areas in question. The lateral prefrontal cortex, which allows us to look at things from a rational or logical perspective and moderates our emotional responses, and the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes information relating to our sense of self and how we interact with others.
Regular meditation can numb the link between the medial prefrontal cortex and our body’s reaction to outside stimuli, leading to a decrease in daily stress and anxiety. What’s more, over time, the brain forms a new healthy connection between the lateral prefrontal cortex and the bodily sensation centres of the brain – allowing us to approach potentially frightening or stressful situations from a more rational and logical perspective.
The US National Library of Medicine took a group of subjects who had never meditated and studied them over a period of eight weeks – with half of the group meditating, and half not. At the end of the study, those who had meditated were found to have a thickening of the grey matter in the areas of the brain that control learning, cognition, emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion – while the area affecting anxiety, stress and fear was shown to have shrunk.
Still think meditation is only for hippies?
Relaxed mind, relaxed body
So now that we know what changes are taking place in the brain, let’s take a look at how they can affect our everyday lives. A relaxed mind leads to a relaxed body, and according to researchers at Ohio State University, relaxation appears to boost the immune system too – particularly among the elderly. A similar study by the State University of New York showed that practising meditation twice daily can help relieve symptoms of common health complaints such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – even going so far as to recommend it as an effective treatment for the issue.
The list goes on and on. A Harvard Medical School study suggests that meditation can help to lower blood pressure by making the body less receptive to stress – in a similar way to blood pressure medication. Stress, and the inflammation it causes within the body, is a major contributor to many serious health complaints – from heart disease and arthritis to asthma and psoriasis – and meditation has been shown to help here too. Multiple studies suggest regular meditation can dampen, and in some cases even switch off, the body’s stress response – lowering the risk of inflammation and acquiring stress-related ailments.
Also worth mentioning are the proven longevity benefits. In a recent 21-day study involving 108 men and women (aged 18-90), more than 50% showed a positive change in both telomerase and pluripotential stem cells (reliable markers for longevity and well-being) – changes that produced health benefits in more than 20 metabolic pathways.
Ready to give it a try?
Meditation does not have to consume your entire life, and I am not asking you to forego your worldly possessions and live in a commune and spend large amounts of your days humming away in the lotus position. In fact, many people report distinct psychological benefits from just ten minutes of meditation a day, and the eight-week study I referenced earlier was based on just 25 minutes of daily meditation.
There are different types of meditation but they generally work in quite similar ways. A good place to start is by doing some research on transcendental meditation, which is a very popular method that millions around the world practice daily. Perhaps find yourself a certified teacher who can help guide you in the beginning.
It is a subject that fascinates me due to the mental health and physical health benefits it brings, so if you do give it a try please send me your feedback to let me know how it goes. The results tend to come quickly and can be very noticeable. In today’s day and age, where life can be so overwhelming as we move through it at too fast a pace for comfort, meditation is literally just what the doctor ordered.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.