Meditation And The Brain: What Do We Know So Far?
Meditation is a technique that’s been practiced for thousands of years, it can be dated as far back as 5000 BC. Ever since the growth of meditation’s popularity, a lot of research and studies have taken place. The very first piece of scientific research took place in 1936, and in 1955 with the first study to use an EEG (Electroencephalogram).
Numerous scientists have been looking into the impacts and the benefits of meditation on the brain, which left many scientists amazed. Therefore, additional studies in this particular area of practice are still being conducted.
What do we know (so far) about the brain and meditation? In this article we will go through how meditation affects the brain, how the brain changes from meditation and the many brain benefits meditation can have.
How Does Meditation Affect the Brain?
First, let’s dive into what actually happens in your brain when you meditate. Spoiler alert – it is a fascinating phenomenon!
If you’re new to meditation, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making scenarios (prefrontal cortex) is switched on during your first meditation session. This part of the brain filters experiences through a form of self-reflection.
Did you know that meditation can also help you to focus your attention better? And when you are able to control your attention, the area of the brain in charge of planning and problem-solving becomes activated – which is the frontal lobe. During this state, your thoughts are more clear, more sensible, and more balanced, which helps you to see in a more neutral way.
If you were to meditate for about 12 weeks, the areas of the brain responsible for generating and regulating emotions will turn on. During this phase, empathy can be developed and levels of compassion can increase. All these effects can become stronger, the more (and longer) you practice meditation.
The brain itself is a complex organ, and this can get very scientific! If you want to know more about what exactly happens to your brain when you meditate, a great video from Beautiful Science further explains the brain changes from meditation. Or, if you want to read a more in-depth way be sure to check out the exact science of what happens to your brain when you meditate by Neurohacker.
Meditation and Brain Activity
Meditation can also affect and change parts of the brain’s activity. Studies have found that over time meditation may lead to an increase in gray matter density.
Gray matter starts to shrink with age and it contains most of the brain’s nerve-related cell bodies. Gray matter includes parts of the brain involved with muscle control, our senses, memory, and emotions.
Meditation can also physically change the brain’s neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and change throughout your life. Your behavior and lifestyle are significant forces on the brain. Whatever you do in your life, your brain will create new and adjust cell connections.
What else is interesting is meditation has also proven to have helped to increase the white matter. This white matter is responsible for helping us think and stay balanced.
Our brain waves can also be altered and changed through meditation. There are five recognized brain waves that we have and they can change depending on what we are doing and how we are feeling.
Research has shown that meditation can lead to an increase in the production of both alpha and theta waves.
When meditating for a longer period of time, research has found that the alpha frequencies can become the brain’s dominant brain wave. A 2020 article review of the various effects meditation has on patients found with a dominant alpha brain wave are have:
1) Improved quality of sleep
2) Decreased anxiety and depression
3) Improved memory and learning
4) Lower stress levels
Meditation can also impact our gamma brain waves. These are the fastest brain waves we have, which aid us in processing information, memory, and awareness. A particular study that measured the brainwaves of those advanced meditators showed that they had higher levels of gamma waves due to their dedication and long-term practice of meditation.
Not only can meditation change parts of the brain. It can also affect how we handle stress, our emotions, and our thoughts – thereby creating clearer and calmer minds.
Benefits of Meditation on the Brain
The human brain is the most powerful organ, it controls and regulates our actions and reactions, but it also allows us to think and feel. That’s what makes us individual humans, and as we can get sick and wounded, so can the brain.
There are many different kinds of illnesses and disorders that affect the brain. Different forms of mental illness, migraines, and as well as Alzheimer’s – to name a few. These can all affect our quality of life, our relationships, as well as decline our health.
Today meditation has created a pathway to help and aid those in their everyday lives. Often advised by doctors and specialists to make it part of the patient’s daily routine.
So how can meditation help with brain health?
An article from the Dana Foundation, explains the four ways to prevent Alzheimer’s, which include yoga and meditation. Explaining that “stress has a detrimental effect on genes” and that even a 12-minute simple meditation or yoga benefits the brain.
The same goes for those suffering from mental illnesses. Setting some time to practice a form of meditation can help ease psychological stresses, and improve self-esteem and mood.
In a 2013 research article, a 2-week meditation training was conducted. The results showed that those who were addicted to smoking tobacco had a 60% reduction in smoking. As well as scans showing increase of brain activity. Improving a person’s self-control and minimizing addictive habits.
What else is very interesting is the effect that meditation has on our brain chemicals. Meditation helps us to naturally release certain chemicals (or Key Neurotransmitters) and helps control the balance of hormones. There are over 40 of these neurotransmitters and practicing a form of meditation can positively impact their levels, such as:
1) Serotonin: Controls our attention, behavior, and body temperature
2) Melatonin: Helps with timing the 24-hour internal clock (circadian rhythms) and sleep
3) Cortisol: The main stress hormone. Restricts what would be non-essential or harmful in a “fight or flight” situation
4) Endorphins: Help to relieve pain, and stress and improve our mood
5) DHEA: Helps to produce other hormones (including testosterone and estrogen)
6) GABA: A chemical messenger in the brain, also produces a calming effect
7) Somatotropin: Replaces the growth hormones produced in the body (also known as the Growth Hormone hGH/HGH)
As we age, so does our brain. In our 20s our brains will naturally begin to deteriorate, then shrink in our 30s and 40s. A study of an 18-year analysis of the mind of a Buddhist monk, published in 2020, revealed that the monk’s intense meditation practice has slowed down the aging process of the brain by eight years.
What we know so far about meditation and the brain are still being studied, with researchers finding out more amazing things about meditation and the brain, and the benefits of meditation on the brain.
As you see from the studies in this article how the brain changes from meditation and how we can all find time to use this amazing tool to benefit our mental health and overall wellbeing.
You don’t need to be religious to start meditating and to gain all these brain benefits. It is a practice that needs time and dedication, like a lot of other things. There are many different meditation methods out there, you just need to find the one that works for you.
Would you like to continue exploring all these benefits of meditation in practice? Join our (free!) live guided Inner Peace Sessions!
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