When the topic of meditation arises, people are often quick to remark that they simply cannot “turn off” their brain. They have a stressful job, a lot of responsibilities, and the world is quite chaotic and uncertain. What many fail to realize is that this is precisely why we need to meditate. And the idea that you must shut down your thought processes is the biggest misconception. Meditation has little to do with not thinking, and much to do with training your brain to focus and work for you, rather than being imprisoned by negative, repetitive, and cyclical thoughts.
What is Meditation?
Verywell Mind, a mental health and wellness journal, defines meditation as “a set of consciousness-altering techniques” formulated to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention.
This can be achieved through a host of techniques and styles. You can meditate silently, with a guide, or recite mantras. There are a myriad of techniques to induce a meditative state like mindfulness, transcendental, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, loving kindness, or with movement, like Tai Chi, Yoga, and walking. You can reach meditative states through creativity — making art, playing an instrument, sand raking, or puzzles. Anything that quiets and focuses the mind for prolonged periods of time can be meditation.
How Does Meditation Change the Brain?
Brain Chemicals Affect Your Mood and Health
The immediate effects felt from meditation are how it makes you feel. Many report an increase in happiness or a sense of calm following a meditative practice. This is because even one meditation session will alter these brain chemicals:
- Serotonin: The “feel good” chemical that helps our brain regulate mood will increase
- Cortisol: The stress hormone decreases
- BHEA: The longevity hormone gets a boost
- Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid: A major inhibitory transmitter in your central nervous system is calmed
- Endorphins: The “natural high” chemicals increase
- Growth Hormone: Levels of this anti-aging chemical are preserved
- Melatonin: The sleep hormone is stimulated
The Prefrontal Cortex and Hippocampus
A well-trained brain has a thick prefrontal cortex. This brain center initiates high order brain functions like awareness, concentration, and decision making. A study conducted at Harvard University discovered that after just eight weeks of regular mindfulness training, subjects showed cortical thickening in the hippocampus, the portion of the brain that controls memories and emotion regulation. Note that decreased volume and density of the hippocampus is linked to several mental health disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Through evolution, our ancestors passed on a highly activated amygdala — This survival instinct responds to threats with a fight-or-flight reaction in the brain. While actual life-threatening situations, such as a lion trying to eat you, are likely not a part of your daily life, your brain still reacts to stress with this extreme response. This causes tremendous anxiety in most adults, who suffer from having a panic fight-or-flight response to modern inconveniences like getting reprimanded at work or being stuck in traffic.
Participants of the Harvard University study’s brain scans showed a significant reduction of activity and size of the amygdala after completing an 8-week mindfulness meditation program (see image 1.1 below). Even more encouraging, the study showed that these changes held steady in the brain even when the participants were not meditating. This demonstrates that meditation has the ability to cause lasting effects and improved function in the brain. The control group in this study showed no such results.
Gray matter is found in your central nervous system and makes up most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies. This tissue is important in areas responsible for self-control, sensory perception, decision-making, and muscle mastery. In a Harvard study conducted on seasoned meditators — those with 20 or more years of mindfulness experience — found that they had significantly more gray matter than non-meditators of the same age. In fact, the amount of gray matter they possessed was similar to the average 20–30-year-old.
White matter holds the myelin, the brain’s “insulation,” and is responsible for neuroplasticity, the connections between neurons that allow the brain to relay information quickly and efficiently. A study conducted at UCLA found that experienced meditators had less age-related atrophy of white matter. While evidence seems to lead to the conclusion that meditation is anti-aging for the brain and could potentially be used to combat dementia and Alzheimer’s, researchers caution that they cannot nail down a conclusive relationship between the two and more studies are needed.
Your brain is a continuous channel of electrical activity, operating at varying frequencies or brain waves. Each type of frequency serves an important purpose, but too much time spent in highly active states can be damaging, desynchronizing, and exhausting. Studies show that meditation allows you to experience more Alpha waves, the ones felt when the mind is calm, relaxed, yet still alert. These are typically present during creative activities, right before you fall asleep, and during meditation. Many studies have correlated a surge in creativity with a higher production of Alpha waves.
The Monkey Mind
According to the National Science Foundation, the average person has anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day! Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive.
When you lay your head on your pillow at night and your brain swirls with thought, this is the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of the brain that overthinks, ruminates on the past, and projects exaggerated outcomes onto the future in a self-referential way. This is known as the “me” brain, or the monkey mind, likening thoughts cycling through your mind to the way a monkey bounces through the trees. Mindfulness meditation allows you to rein in this default thought process that causes so much inner turmoil, and in doing so, calm, empathy, and compassion arises.
Loving Kindness and Compassion
Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist who has spent decades studying meditation said, “If we spent such a short time on our mind as we do on brushing our teeth, this world would be a different place.” One studyfound that after just two weeks of loving kindness meditation training, people made charitable donations at a higher rate.
Another study found that people were three times more likely than non-meditators to give up their seat when they saw someone on crutches. “Loving-kindness also boosts the connections between the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex, a zone critical for guiding behavior,” Davidson writes in Altered Traits, a book he co-authored on the neuroscience of meditation. “And the greater the increase in the connection between these regions, the more altruistic a person becomes.” It is no wonder that companies like Google, Nike, Apple, and Target have begun integrating meditation training into their business model.
Those that suffer with depression and PTSD show decreased volume and density in their hippocampus. And while brain scans indicate that meditation helps to mitigate this, do these changes prove a real, perceptible shift in the patients’ feelings of wellbeing? Yes, they do.
Participants self-reported their levels of stress decreased and their overall happiness improved after completing mindfulness training. In fact, a study at Johns Hopkins University categorized the effect size of meditation as a treatment for depression as moderate, at 0.3. For comparison, the effect size of prescription antidepressant medications is also 0.3. In Image 1.2 below, you will see evidence from MRIs indicating that meditation serves to alleviate the perception of pain in the brain by 57 percent.
A growing number of studies are reaffirming evidence that meditation directly affects the self-control regions of the brain and is helpful in treating addiction. One study of the American Lung Association’s “Freedom from Smoking’’ program tested the success of its program with the addition of meditation training and found that those subjects were many times more likely to have quit smoking by the end of the program, and at the 17-week follow-up, than those who did the program alone. Through mindfulness training practices, patients were able to detach the body from the emotion, or craving, allowing them to ride out the wave of temptation. Other research has supported the theory that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) are highly successful in treating many forms of addiction and are often used in rehabilitation and recovery centers.
How Do I Meditate?
The wealth of information available on meditation and its various techniques can be overwhelming. Where do you begin? Just like you cannot get in shape by going to the gym for a week or play Mozart after a couple of piano lessons, it takes small, consistent effort to grow your mindfulness practice. Starting with as little as five or ten minutes a day is ideal for beginners. Try it first thing in the morning when you are still sleepy, and your mind is especially susceptible to influence (and worry).
Meditation music can help you to release your propensity to go down the rabbit hole of wandering thoughts. YouTube has a host of great meditation playlists as well as guided meditations. Apps like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer offer thousands of guided meditations to help you get into the feel and practice of mindfulness.
The beauty of meditation is in its simplicity, it does not require a single thing to do it other than your own consistent efforts. And maybe a timer to know when you are done. While as little as five minutes a day will improve your mental state and sense of wellbeing, you may want to set the goal to work up to a 30-45-minute meditation a couple of times per week. The aforementioned Harvard study found that in participants that achieved lasting states of altered brain chemistry and Alpha waves throughout their daily activities, practiced for this amount of time. While participants that meditated for 20 minutes showed improvement in all the same areas of the brain but only while actively meditating.
Meditation is a technique to achieve a heightened sense of awareness through focused attention. Mindfulness training helps to regulate mood, boosts your feel-good chemicals, and reduce the stress hormone cortisol. It thickens the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which is directly related to fighting depression and PTSD. It shrinks activation of the amygdala, which is our brain’s threat response. It preserves the gray and white matter in the brain that normally atrophies with age. It quiets the self-absorbed “me” brain that tends to cycle in toxic and obsessive thoughts. It increases our capacity for compassion, empathy, and our desire to help others.
The effect size of meditation as treatment for depression is equal to that of antidepressants. And it has been proven to greatly increase the chances of recovering from addiction and preventing relapse. We will never be free of the stresses and uncertainty that life presents— meditation is a way to cope, find peace, and a sense of calm helping you to manage your emotions and improve your quality of life.