Traditionally associated with Eastern ritual, religions and traditions, meditation and mindfulness practices are becoming more common and accessible in the West. Thanks to supportive research, meditative techniques have moved into popular habit among many Americans. You may wonder, however, what does meditation do to the brain?
What Is Meditation?
Before it makes sense to explain meditation’s effect on the brain, we first need to answer the question, what is meditation? Of course, various definitions exist for the term, but generally speaking, meditation is the practice of continued or extended intentional thought and reflection, usually through certain techniques, such as mindfulness or the repetition of words or mantras.
A Brief Introduction to Meditation Styles
Mindfulness is the awareness of our thoughts, actions, feelings and sensations. Mindfulness meditation - a practice with roots in Buddhism - can be as simple as spending a few moments in full awareness and presence of whatever action you are doing. The most common method involves sitting comfortably in stillness and paying attention to your breath, while gently refocusing your attention back on the breath as the mind is likely to wander off to other ideas, subjects and concerns.
Mantra meditation, also known as transcendental meditation, involves focusing on a specific phrase - called a mantra - instead of paying attention solely to your breath and bodily sensations. The mantra is repeated either aloud or in the mind for a set period of time.
Sound meditation couples the healing power of meditation with sound therapy. When used as a tool to deepen meditation, sound therapy allows greater access to alpha and theta brainwave states, thereby increasing the potency of meditation and inducing the brain’s “relaxation response.”
Other kinds of meditation involve light physical movement - such as Tai Chi or Qi Gong - or a more specific spiritual focus and prayer to certain deities, as in Buddhist or Hindu traditions. Regardless of the method you choose, all varieties of the practice rest on the purpose of calming and training the mind to create a more harmonious inner and outer experience with the world.
What Does Meditation Do to the Brain?
We’ve set the stage with a brief overview of the definition and practices of meditation, but what does meditation do to the brain?
For starters, research suggests that consistent meditation has positive effects in both the short- and long-term. According to research done by Sara Lazar - whose lab at Harvard University studies the neuroscience of yoga and meditation - dropping into a state of mindful awareness while anxious or in a stressful situation activates brain structures that make up the “relaxation response.” These “relaxation response” structures largely control the autonomic nervous system.
Here are some quick facts on the autonomic nervous system:
- Controlled mainly by the hypothalamus
- Houses the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which control our “flight or flight” and “rest and digest” mechanisms, respectively
- Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and quiets the sympathetic nervous system, even for first-time meditators
Meditation’s Effects on the Brains of Long-Term Meditators
Many studies on the benefits of longer-term meditation use a method called, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. MBSR is an eight-week meditation training program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, in which participants are immersed in an intensive mindfulness practice to reduce stress, depression, pain and anxiety.
Studies using MBSR have shown meditation’s effects on the following brain areas:
- Decreased activity and brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for signaling fear, anxiety and stress
- Increased cortical folds in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in learning and memory
- Reduced activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN), a system of brain structures that controls self-thought and mind-wandering, both of which can lead to anxiety and stress
- Increased activity in anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex, which largely regulate self-control and can aid with addiction recovery
- Reduces the atrophy of the brain’s gray matter as people age, which contributes to higher quality of life in the elderly
Meditation and Sound
As mentioned above, the complementary healing power of meditation and sound healing can produce measurable, long-term effects on the brain, giving us greater access to self-control and emotional regulation, as well as increased longevity to learn and integrate new brain patterns and information.
Meditation and sound therapy both represent modes of “brainwave entrainment.” Entrainment, or the synchronization of systems, in this case encapsulates the synchronization of mind, body, spirit and environment.
Modern neuroscience has barely scratched the surface of answering the question, what does meditation do to our brain? Ancient Buddhist psychology, for example, has long examined ways and practices to alleviate human suffering and stress, or duhkha. Predating psychology by thousands of years, even modern neuroscience feels limited in its ability to explain the material underpinnings of a practice that’s largely energetic and immaterial in its nature.
So, why meditate? On top of its proven positive effects on the brain, incorporating a meditation practice offers a deeper connection with spirit and remembrance of who you really are. It reduces the stress response, increases longevity in critical brain areas and allows you to cultivate internal strategies for peace and wellbeing.
The practice itself is simple, but creating habits and patterns that make meditation a regular part of your routine can involve uncomfortable changes to your status quo. At the very least, sitting quietly and calmly in meditation offers a harmless coping strategy, especially when compared to more common, modern coping methods.
With meditation and all things, keep it simple, start wherever you’re at and allow it to grow over time. Remember that although you won’t feel your hippocampus growing or your amygdala shrinking, you’ll gradually gain access to the more powerful-yet-subtle tools of awareness and self-reflection.
Other articles you may be interested in:
- How Does Sound Therapy Work?
- Sounds for Stress Release
- Sounds for Sleep
- Sounds for Meditation and Yoga Practice
- Meditation: In Depth https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm#hed4
- Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485650/
- What the Neuroscience of Meditation Does and Doesn’t Show https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-meditative-mind/201808/what-the-neuroscience-meditation-does-and-doesn-t-show
- Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditationhttps://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/Abstract/2000/05150/Functional_brain_mapping_of_the_relaxation.42.aspx
- Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4529365/
article by Taylor Goodwin