For thousands of years, people have turned to meditation to calm their nerves, relax their minds, and soothe their souls. Even now in the midst of the digital age, the ancient art of meditation remains as popular as ever, but modern science is starting to validate what practitioners have known for centuries – that meditation has positive, life-enhancing effects on the brain.
Research has shown that regular meditation improves brain function by encouraging more neural connections in gray matter, fostering growth in the parts of the brain responsible for thoughtful decision-making, and suppressing the primal fight-or-flight instinct that is triggered by stress.
Meditation has long been viewed as an exercise that seeks to reach a certain frame of mind in order to produce mental and emotional benefits. But there is far more going on during meditation than creating positivity. Keep reading to learn about 3 key things that happen in the brain during meditation.
The Brain and Meditation
Although its exact origins are somewhat difficult to trace, it is believed that the first records of meditation date back to 1,500 BCE, making this ancient practice roughly 3,500 years old. But only recently have modern science and medicine been able to confirm that many of meditation’s purported benefits are the result of certain things happening in the brain.
Areas of the Brain Impacted by Meditation
Generally speaking, most people practice meditation for the ways that it calms the mind, alleviates stress and anxiety, and provides a measure of relaxation. While these benefits have been enjoyed for centuries, only recently have the virtues of meditation been scientifically linked to changes occurring in particular parts of the brain. For instance:
- Amygdala – this is the part of the brain that is responsible for triggering the initial alert in response to a perceived threat (the so-called fight or flight instinct) and meditation has been shown to suppress this reaction
- Prefrontal cortex – this part of the brain formulates your response to the distress signal sent out by the amygdala and meditating has been shown to filter out the noise produced by emotional responses and help produce more thoughtful decisions
- Cerebral cortex – meditation has also been shown to have a thickening effect on the cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain associated with complex thought processes, memory, and decision-making
- Hippocampus – the hippocampus has also been linked to memory as well as cognitive ability and people who meditate regularly have seen up to a 15% increase in the size of this part of the brain
- Temporo parietal junction – people who spend a lot of time meditating are said to be more compassionate and a link between meditation and growth in this part of the brain has been observed
Millions of people around the world rely on meditation to provide balance and stability in their lives and science is showing that its effects on the brain are largely responsible for these life-changing benefits.
3 Things Happening in the Brain During Meditation?
For several thousand years, people have sought inner peace through meditation. Ancient practitioners of this mysterious practice did not need scientific proof of meditation’s merits to know that it promoted their mental and emotional well-being. But now, modern technology is allowing researchers to prove what meditators have known for centuries – meditating affects the brain in positive ways.
1. Meditating Alters Connections in the Brain
Among the key discoveries that have been made about the effects of meditation on the brain is that meditating alters key connections in the brain and these changes have positive results on emotional stability and mental well-being. These observations can be summarized as follows:
- Meditation has been linked to the shrinking of the amygdala, aka the brain’s primal alert center, and reducing its connectivity with the rest of the brain
- Meditation also contributes to the enlargement of the prefrontal cortex, the area associated with thoughtful decision-making, and increases the strength of its transmissions to other parts of the brain
- The key takeaway from this is that meditation seems to reduce the stress of a worrisome situation and increases the ability to take decisive action
- People who regularly meditate have also exhibited a level of disconnect between the anterior cingulate cortex, which recognizes the sensation of pain, and the prefrontal cortex, thus dulling not the pain itself, but rather, the awareness of it
Another observation that has been made in relation to the positive connections that meditation can create in the brain is that these pathways become stronger with consistent practice, providing yet another reason to meditate regularly.
2. Meditation Stabilizes the Mind
The ventral posteromedial cortex is an area of the brain that is associated with random thoughts and an easily distracted mind. There is evidence to support the notion that meditation suppresses activity in this part of the brain, resulting in greater focus and mental sharpness.
Not only does meditation improve memory but it also enhances cerebral performance, such as during an exam or while performing an important task when concentration and cognitive function are at a premium.
3. Meditating Affects Gray Matter in the Brain
Neurons are specialized cells that generate thoughts, impulses, and feelings by relaying electrical impulses throughout the brain. Gray matter is the brain tissue where the majority of neurons are found and its presence is therefore crucial to the overall function of the body’s most important organ.
Studies have shown that the gray matter in the brains of people who regularly meditate becomes denser and presumably packed with more neural connections than in the brains of those who do not meditate. The results of this positive effect on brain gray matter include:
- Improved memory
- Enhanced cognitive function
- Better decision-making
- Greater focus and concentration
- Heightened sense of self-awareness
While people who meditate have long reported reaping these life-changing benefits, science is now backing these claims up with hard data and research.
How Can I Get Started Learning How To Meditate?
To fully reap the many (now proven) benefits of meditation, it is important to learn the underlying philosophy and methodology for its practice. Like taking up a new sport, learning how to meditate requires good instruction and a willingness to practice.
Fortunately, there are many ways to learn the ancient art of meditation, including a number of online resources like this program offered by My Vinyasa Practice. By enrolling in this online meditation training, you can expect to learn:
- The principles of mindfulness
- Breathing techniques
Among the many advantages of online meditation training is the ability to learn at your own pace and having full, on-demand access to digital materials like video lessons.
For centuries, practitioners of meditation have known that meditating regularly can relieve stress, improve memory and clarify their thoughts. Thanks to modern science, the curtain has been pulled back on this ancient art and much of the mystery surrounding its benefits have been explained. Meditation has been shown to have many positive effects on the brain, the extent of which is still being explored.