Meditation & Health #4 – How Meditation Rewires Our Brains
How Meditation Rewires Our Brains
By Linda Wu
Meditation has been capturing scientists’ fancy for decades. A large volume of scientific literature documents that meditation increases brain size, improves cognitive function, helps learning and memory, builds emotional intelligence and optimizes human potential.
Meditation Increases Brain Size
The first evidence that meditation can alter the structure of our brains has come courtesy of researchers at Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” said Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.”
Thickening of the “thinking cap” section of the cortex turned out to be more pronounced in older people. That’s an impressive finding because that region of the brain typically thins out over time. The researchers compared brain scans of 20 experienced meditators with those of 15 non-meditators. They found the gray matter of meditators to be substantially larger than that of people who don’t meditate regularly.
In May of 2009, Science Daily cited a study published in the journal NeuroImage: Researchers at UCLA, through the use of high-resolution MRI technology, found that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators are larger than those of a similar control group. Specifically, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus – all areas known for regulating emotions.
“We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior,” said Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. “The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities.”
Meditation Improves Cognitive Function
The mind may in fact be easier to cognitively train than was previously believed, according to the latest research. In one psychological study, meditation-trained participants showed a major improvement in their cognitive skills (and performed significantly higher on cognitive tests than a control group) after only four days of training for a mere 20 minutes each day.
Fadel Zeidan, a post-doctoral researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, was enthusiastic about the implications.
“In the behavioral test results, what we are seeing is something that is somewhat comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training. It goes to show that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation.”
“The meditation group did especially better on all the cognitive tests that were timed,” Zeidan continued. “In tasks where participants had to process information under time constraints causing stress, the group briefly trained in mindfulness performed significantly better.”
Meditation Helps Learning and Memory
The New York Times published an article on January 28, 2011 entitled “How Meditation May Change the Brain.” According to the article, M.R.I. scans taken before and after the meditation regimen of a group of study participants found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area crucial to learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to stress. A control group of non-meditators did not demonstrate any such changes.
Brain scans of Buddhist monks had already shown striking alteration of gamma waves in the prefrontal cortex, an area linked with heightened cognitive responses along with feelings like compassion.
Meditation also increases focus. Some neuroscientists have noted that making a habit of meditation can bolster brain circuits responsible for sustaining concentration and catalyzing empathy.
A University of Pennsylvania-based researcher named Andrew Newberg first noted in the late 1990s that his brain scans of dedicated meditators showed the prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for attention – revving into overdrive during meditation while the brain region in charge of our orientation in time and space, called the superior parietal lobe, dimmed.
Meditation Builds Emotional Intelligence
Copious research has demonstrated that meditation enhances people’s lives in multiple ways. The benefits include, but are by no means limited to:
1. Greater self-awareness
2. Heightened emotional intelligence
3. Improved mental clarity, focus and determination.
Each of these benefits is vital to anyone living in today’s fast-paced society. Modern life can be very stressful. Meditation helps practitioners to observe emotions rather than blindly react to them. Through detachment, people are able to be more aware of the world around them and perceive the deeper, interrelated workings of life while remaining positively engaged with others.
Meditation Optimizes Human Potential
Maintaining a detached awareness of the goings-on of our mental and emotional selves allows for a broadened perspective and greater access to deeper truth.
The journey through life is made easier by a mind that can adapt peacefully to changing realities, and meditation training uncovers an unflappable mental state. Hardships are part of the human experience, but those who live in a state of higher consciousness are able to transcend the turbulence of life.
Meditation helps people to optimize their potential by allowing them to accept the ups and downs of existence unconditionally. Acceptance of life means acceptance of self, and by leading practitioners to know and embrace their true selves, meditation sets free the beauty that lies within.