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Oct
2015
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How does meditation change the brain?

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Recently, there has been lot of talk about the benefits meditation. The stresses of modern society have begun to take a toll on many, and hence the high interest in these ancient practices.

Meditation has by and large been accepted as remedy to reducing anxiety, alleviating depression, and decreasing stress – which in turn reduces the health risks of numerous stress-induced diseases.

But, most of us (myself included) don’t understand what exactly meditation does for the brain. You may be skeptical of the effects of meditation, but there is science behind the fact that it does help.

This post is a bit technical, but bear with me because the facts are really interesting!

SCIENCE, HERE WE COME!

So to begin, we have to get ourselves familiar with some areas within the brain.

Lateral Pre Frontal Cortex

This part of the brain helps you see things from a rational and balanced perspective. It is involved in overriding automatic behaviors, decreasing the emotional response of the brain, and modulating the emotional responses that come out of the fear center of the brain. According to Psychology.com, it is often referred to as the Assessment Center * (remember this for later)

Medial Pre Frontal Cortex (mPFC)

Again, referencing Psychology Today, this part of the brain is often called the Me Center* (remember this for later). It processes information related to your thoughts and experiences. These include: self-reflections, thinking of the future, your social interactions, and empathy towards others.

The mPFC is split into two sections

  1. Ventromedial medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – According to the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers have found that the vmPFC seems to control emotional responses to certain social situations and behaviors (i.e worrying / rumination / feeling anxious, making sound moral judgments, etc)
  2. Dorsomedial medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) –  Is activated when people try to assess the mental states of others (i.e their beliefs, desires, and intentions). It processes information on the differences you feel between yourself and others. This is the part of the brain that feels empathy towards others and helps to maintain social connections.

Insula

Located deep within the brain, it monitors one’s bodily sensations and guides your responses to those sensations. This is also where we get our gut-feelings from. 

And lastly, 

Amygdala

Otherwise known as the Fear Center of the brain, the amygdala triggers our initial emotions and reactions to alarming / fearful situations. 

So, now that we are experts on different areas in the brain…..

Brain without Meditation

One word: Stuck. If we were to look at someone’s brain who hasn’t done any meditation, you would see a lot of neurons firing within the Me Center and between the Me and Insula/Fear centers of the brain.

Meaning: we are stuck in certain thought patterns that persist and we can’t seem to break from that cycle. It’s because the connection between the Me and the Assessment center is weak.

Example:

You have a recurring thought such as: “I’ll never be successful.” Consistent use of the Me Center (especially the vmPFCcan cause anxiety, worry, pain, sadness, etc. But, if the Assessment Center is activated, you might respond to your thought with something like this “But, what is the evidence that I’ll truly be unsuccessful?” The Assessment Center adjusts the emotional response that comes out of the vmPFC (part of the brain that worries, ruminates) and triggers activity in the dmPFC (part of the brain where empathy comes from). It helps to gauge factual, and relevant information that is available so one can arrive at a balanced perspective and not just overthink and blame oneself for everything.

Brain with Meditation

In a recent study, participants were part of a 8-week mindfulness course. Afterwards, MRI scans revealed that the Fear Center appears to shrink.


Red = Amygdala

So, when you DO meditate, this happens:

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex (Assessment Center) – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.

The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. – Scientific American

Here is an example of what happens when you begin to use your pre-frontal cortex more.

… when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean. – Psychology Today

How cool is meditation?!

Essentially, there is now actual science behind why meditation is good for you. MRI scans have shown that the thickness of the brain increases over time with meditation. Studies are now showing that the brain begins to function better with improved thinking, and analyzing power. Meditation helps to weaken the unhelpful sides of the mPFC, but increases use of the useful aspects of the mPFC such as empathy, and compassion.

But, as with anything good in life, it requires hard work.

Practice Practice Practice

Sorry man, ain’t no easy way around this one. Meditation quite literally changes the brain for the better. It helps you see yourself and the world around you in a much more positive way. You become less reactive to things, and hence more balanced and yes…zen. But in order to build new neural pathways and connections, practice is important – that too, daily. Your brain can very easily go back to its old ways. So practice! Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day. It will change your life.

It has been a real pleasure for me to research this topic. I have gained so much respect for the amazing muscle that is the brain and for what meditation can do for it. The fact that there is actual science behind meditation, makes the reward tangible and real.

Helpful Links

In conclusion, I have included some helpful links and apps that you might be interested in checking out. If you still aren’t sure about meditation and its effects, please do check some of the links below. Knowledge is power. If you’re someone who is interested in meditation, but feel that you may not be in a good place to do it on your own – please seek the help of a meditation teacher.

What does Mindfulness Meditation Do to your Brain?

Psychology Today: This is your brain on Meditation

Harvard Study: 8 Weeks to a Better Brain  

Medical Daily: Benefits of Meditation

Free Meditation / Mindfulness Apps 

More apps (Iphone)

More apps (Android)

If you have made it all the way down here then THANK you for stopping by and reading!

Namaste

 

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