Article at a Glance
- The mind shapes the brain and meditation has the power to produce a mental transformation.
- This popular practice has ancient roots and people have been benefiting in the same way for many centuries.
- Meditation can increase IQ, decrease emotional instability, and drastically better one’s quality of life.
What actually happens to your brain during meditation? What was once a niche topic popular among the counterculture of the late 1960s has now transformed into a worldwide phenomenon. You are sure to find yoga studios, meditation centers, people with headphones using Headspace, or local psychologists teaching the secular mindfulness-based stress reduction on Main Street of just about any town in America.
While most have heard about or tried meditation, not too many people understand the science behind it and how it affects the brain. Beneath the surface lies a repository of information that details just how meditation affects the brain.
The ever-evolving field of neuro-imaging has catalyzed a revolution in the science of mindfulness. Today meditation is its own search category on the NIH website.
Your Brain During Meditation
Everyone says to meditate, so it must be a good thing to do, right? But what actually happens to your brain during meditation?
Neurons that fire Together Wire Together
This phrase was coined by Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949. Webb is known for his work in the field of associative learning [R]. It is generally used to explain how new networks in the brain form, and has been used as an explanatory mechanism for the phenomena of neuroplasticity.
In the 19th and early 20th Century, When neuroscience was still in its infancy, there was a belief that all people were born with a certain number of neurons, and that as we aged, we only had the capacity to lose more and more neurons as time went on. This belief proved to be wrong.
As time progressed the concept of neuroplasticity came to the forefront. This notion relates to the established fact that the brain can and does change based on our experiences. Whether we realize it or not, our decided actions play a pivotal role in the physiological function of our brain. Our brains are constantly changing based on feedback that originates in the external world. This means that the power to improve yourself lies in your own hands.
The most critical tool in changing our brain comes in the form of meditation. According to Rick Hanson, the well-known neuroscientist, “from the standpoint of experience-dependent neuroplasticity, while neurons that fire together wire together, throughout the entire nervous system they do so preferentially for what’s in the field of focused attention” [R].
In effect, neurons that fire together, wire together, but only in response to what you are paying attention to.
The Effects of Meditation On the Brain
Improves Ability to Pay Attention
Studies have found that participants who meditated had a discernible increase in thickness in the white matter of their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) [R].
The ACC is the center of many essential functions of the brain. As it relates to meditation, it manages “effortful attention,” or the ability to pay attention in a deliberate way.
In other words, you use the ACC plays a pivotal role in just about everything you do from reading this article to driving a car.
Empathy, Compassion, and the Insula
Mediation also has profound effects on the amount of grey matter found in the Insula. This part of the brain is responsible for emotional resonance, or what is commonly referred to as empathy. The insula holds a repository of mirror neurons, a subset of brain cells responsible for helping you exist within the world and interact with other people [R].
Meditation, Fear, and the Amygdala
Meditation shrinks the Amygdala. MRI scans have shown that the amygdala, the “fight or flight” center in the brain, appears to shrink after an 8-week mindfulness practice course. This region of the brain initiates how the body responds to stress and is closely associated with fear [R].
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for all higher thinking. Decision making, coherent thought, communication skills, and the mind’s ability to plan for the future all originate in the prefrontal cortex, making it possibly the most important part of the brain for allowing you to become everything you want to be.
The same study that monitored patients in the 8-week course referenced above also shows that, in addition to shrinking the amygdala, thickened the amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex [R]. This essentially makes meditation the most primal and most effective nootropic.
How Long and Often Should You Meditate
The good news is it appears that the degree to which the mind changes for the better is up to you. Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh, says that mindfulness studies show that “the scale of these physiological changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done” [R].
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that meditating for just 10 minutes a day was enough to see significant results, especially for people with anxiety. In their study, participants were asked to perform a task on a computer while experiencing interruptions to gauge their ability to stay focused on the task [R].
The group of individuals was then separated into two groups, one who meditated for ten minutes per day and a control group. After one month the two groups were subjected to a series of tests, the meditation group exhibited greater focus, which is particularly important for people who are anxious because their mind spent less time thinking about their internal worries [R].
Meditation: The Original Nootropic
Mediation is one of the few interventions that seemingly has no ceiling to the degree to which it can increase brain function.
You may be familiar with biohacker and founder of the Bulletproof brand, Dave Asprey. He is a staunch advocate of a program called 40 Years of Zen, a neurofeedback course that claims to increase IQ, decrease emotional instability, and drastically better one’s quality of life. What most people don’t realize is the set of exercises and techniques administered in any sort of neurofeedback is essentially meditation. The dressings may be different, but the root of what is done, and more importantly what is happening in the brain, is quite similar to the standard meditation of the breath.
Meditation is an ancient and timeless method for improving one’s mind. Today we find ourselves using the same methods and achieving the same results as those who meditated many centuries ago. Those interested in improving their brain and even their quality of life would benefit by engaging in regular meditation practice. Additional resources for those looking to get started or for those who are experienced meditation practitioners can be found in the brain category of our articles on keepmeprime.com.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. Information is provided for educational purposes. You should consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website.