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How meditation can physically change your brain
Due to its well established roots in the mysticism of India and East-Asia, meditation usually comes hand-in-hand with other Eastern, practices and schools of thought like yoga, chi gung, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc.
This makes it relatively inaccessible to the majority of westerners, particularly those who are non-religious, or who don't feel compelled to explore Eastern religions and philosophies.
Despite misconceptions though, meditation is not just a spiritual or religious practice. It's not about about good-feelings, wearing tunics, selling your earthly possessions or reaching Englightenment.
Mindfulness Meditation is a powerful tool for continuous brain development and there are real, measurable, physical changes that take place in the brain of those who meditate regularly.
In fact, just 8 weeks of regular practice is enough to notice measureable changes in the brain's physical structure—changes that can help all of us better cope with our hectic and often stressful lives.
Here are just a few of the ways meditiation physically alters the brain for the better:
Improved Alpha Brain-Wave Modulation
Alpha waves play a key role in brain activity related to concentration; which things should you pay attention to and which should you ignore. By studying regular meditators, neuroscientists have discovered that mindfulness meditation increases our brain's ability to regulate alpha waves. By improving modulation of these alpha rythms, meditators learn to better control which body sensations and signals they pay attention to and how to regulate attention so they are less distracted by negative sensations such as hunger, chronic pain and depressing thoughts.
In short, meditation can alter brain activity, helping to improve your ability to concentrate and avoid negative thoughts, even while you're not meditating.
Increased Cortical Thickness
The cerebral cortex is the grey, outermost layer of our brains. This layer of the brain plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness. If you've ever heard an old teacher or boss tell you to "Use your grey matter" the cerebral cortex is the part they're talking about. Research shows that mindfulness meditation actually increases the thickness of the cortex, increasing the amount of grey matter in key areas of your brain related to how you perceive the outside world.
Meditation literally increases the thickness in the part of the brain associated with attention, pain threshold, sensory processing as well as memory and consicousness.
Larger grey matter volume in the hippocampi
In a study conducted by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, 16 participants took part in an 8 week mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. After the 8 weeks, MRI scans of their brains showed an increase in the density of grey matter in the hippocampus, a part of the cortex known to be important for learning and memory, emotion regulation, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and perspective taking.
Since the control group in this study (a group who did not take part in the meditation, but were also measured) did not show these brain changes, this study strongly suggests that meditation can increase the amount of grey matter in the brain responsible for learning, positive emotion and introspection in just 8 weeks.
Decreased activity and grey matter in the amygdala
The Massachusetts General Hospital study (mentioned above) and another study by Boston University also show that mindfulness meditation leads to a reduction in stress and negative emotions. Interestingly, the reduction reported correlated with a decrease in the grey-matter in the amygdala, part of the brain responsible for anxiety and our stress response to events and negative thoughts.
These studies suggest that meditation can decrease the amount of activity and grey matter in the area of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety in just 8 weeks.
Increased Cortical Folding
As well as increasing the thickness in areas of the cerebral cortex, recent evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation increases the amount of folding (the ridges on the surface of the brain that make it look like a cauliflower) in the cortex too.
More cortical folding means greater surface area of the cerebral cortex. This is believed to result in faster processing of information, better decision making, better memory forming, and improved attention.
In short, meditation literally changes the physical shape of your cortex, improving the speed at which you can process information and make decisions.
Science has only just started to scratch the surface of the effects and benefits of meditation and it's likely that a lot more will come out of the works as we continue to study it in more detail.
In the meantime, it's already clear that regular meditation practice of just a few minutes each day can help reduce our reaction to stressful events, improve our concentration and sharpen our minds - improvements everyone could benefit from.
If you'd like to learn more about meditation, check out my previous post, how to meditate, for a quick introduction.