How Meditation Changes The Brain

Posted by Naomi Rohr on

Do you ever find it frustrating, when you’ve become cozy in bed and ready to fall asleep, and your thoughts start racing about the most random things - like the Buzzfeed quiz you took that day or which place you should get lunch the next day? 

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Restlessness is a huge symptom of our hectic lifestyles, thanks to our culture of distraction via things like phone notifications or the internet. It creates unnecessary stress and reduces your focus on the tasks at hand.

But, stress doesn’t just make you feel bad for the time being. It creates real  and lasting physical damage in the body—particularly the brain and nervous system. It can shrink or create atrophy in the brain, as well as changing blood supply—leading to weaker mental abilities such as memory. 

But, it’s not all bad news! There’s a way to get around this without much effort. The solution is to simply—do nothing for a few minutes. Though, doing nothing is a lot harder than it sounds. Just a few minutes of meditation is enough to affect a huge positive effect—both physically and mentally. It can undo some of the physical damage caused by stress.

What is Meditation and Mindfulness?

The words ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ have been popular buzzwords in the wellness space recently, and for good reason. Meditation is a very broad term to describe the practice of calming the mind through focusing on a particular thought (like positive affirmations) or activity (breathing). 

It is a technique that can slow down a restless mind and have more control over your thoughts. This allows you to focus better on tasks you’re doing. Our brains aren’t built for multitasking, so learning how to focus on one thing at a time is vital. 

Though meditation is often associated with eastern philosophy or religions like Buddhism, you don’t need to be religious to be good at it. You can pretty much meditate anywhere, at any time—even on days you’re too lazy to hop off bed.

There are many different types of meditation, but the ones you’ve most commonly found in the media are ‘transcendental meditation’ and ‘mindfulness meditation’. 

Mindfulness meditation involves the mind actively focusing on a thought, and then bringing the mind back to focus after it ‘wanders’ off. So, the goal here is to reduce the mind wandering or restlessness. Mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhist practices.

Transcendental meditation is a little more passive, and involves chanting mantras to avoid fleeting thoughts in the mind. Transcendental meditation has its roots in Hinduism and Vedic philosophy.  

To use an analogy, think of both forms as cardio. Mindfulness meditation would be like running, with a goal of breaking your previous record. Meanwhile, transcendental meditation is more like doing a Zumba class. 

While they both burn calories, the ‘Zumba’ seems more passive, whereas the ‘running’ seems like more work. However, with the running, you feel like you’re improving your physical performance more than the Zumba class.

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The Effects Of Meditation On the Brain

Thanks to the latest advancements in neuroimaging, scientists are able to better study the brains of people who meditate in order to establish empirical evidence to support it. While some of these studies rely on self-reported results by participants, others used neuroimaging techniques like fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to see how the brain’s structure changed. 

Over the many research studies conducted, researchers have found that meditation changes the brain’s structure in many different ways:

1. Bigger prefrontal cortex

There’s mounting evidence that suggests meditation increases grey matter (brain cells) in the prefrontal cortex. This is the area involved in rationalisation and decision-making.

2. Smaller Amygdala

The amygdala is the part of your brain that processes fear. People who are always scared, anxious or stressed have larger amygdala. Meditation seems to reduce the amygdala, reducing fear and anxiety.

3. Bigger Hippocampus

The hippocampus is the region of your brain that is responsible for memory and learning. Numerous studies, such as this one by Luders et al. in 2015,  have shown that the hippocampus is bigger in meditators, which means they have better memory and learning capacity.

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Here are the most studied cognitive benefits of mindfulness meditation:

1. Improved Memory 

In a 2010, Jha et al studied the effects of mindfulness meditation in military participants. They studied three groups: non-meditating military participants, non-meditating civilians (control group) and meditating military participants. Both the meditating and non-meditating military groups were highly stressed before the study. 

The results showed that the non-meditating military group’s memory deteriorated over time, the civilians’ memory showed no change, while the meditating military group had improved memory. 

2. Lowering rumination and potentially, depressive symptoms

In several studies, such as Chambers et al (2008), showed that mindfulness meditation reduces rumination. Rumination (or dwelling in negative thoughts) is a common depressive symptom. In the study, 20 participants (with no meditation background) were asked to participate in a 10 day meditation retreat. The meditation group reported a significant reduction in ruminating thoughts. 

3. Reduced stress

The most obvious benefit of meditation seems to be reduced stress. In a 2010 review by Hoffman et al of 39 studies on meditation and stress, showed mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that reduces stress.

4. Improved emotional stability

Another salient benefit of mindfulness is reduced emotional reactivity. Researchers have found that meditation—whether it’s beginners or more seasoned meditators—drastically improved emotionally reactive. They found that meditators found it easier to disengage from upsetting or negative thoughts and carry on with the task at hand.

5. Better Focus

Carrying on from the previous point, meditation seems to significantly improve focus in meditators. In one study by Moore and Malinowsky (2009), mindfulness meditation was correlated with improved focus and attention. Meditators were better able to suppress distracting thoughts or information. 

The Bottom Line

Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is a powerful tool to improve cognitive function. There is mounting neuroimaging evidence that shows how meditation can improve the structure of the brain, relating to things like learning, memory, fear and focus. The best part is that it’s never too late to start, because researchers have found that even beginners experience meditation benefits very quickly.

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