Peace, balance and tranquility are a few common reasons many of us choose to meditate today. Meditation is now a popular practice that calms the mind and balances the system in an effective way. Meditation is a way to get your day started on the right note or de-stress after a long day. So, why is the practice so effective? What happens to the mind and brain during meditation?
The brain is a complex organ where several electrochemical processes are taking place. There is always some form of activity going on, whether you are awake, asleep, working, meditating or spending time with family and friends. Many scientists have delved deep into how meditation changes the brain and the effects of meditation on the body. So, what happens when you meditate for a long time? In a nutshell, meditation heightens your emotional intelligence, strengthens the mind and enhances physical well-being.
How meditation benefits the brain
An eight-week study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness indicated that after two months of daily meditation practice, not only did the participants’ brains begin to change, but they felt “more capable of acting with awareness, observing, and remaining nonjudgmental.”
Meditation’s effect on the brain waves is rather phenomenal. Messages that are transmitted between neurons are creating currents inside us. Termed as ‘neural oscillations’, by scientists, these have been classified as going from the highest, most subtle, oscillation to the lowest, which is gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Each of these is related to a specific activity.
Gamma waves are more active when our minds are learning and are in a state of ‘hyperactive’. These waves boost the learning process, enhancing the ability to retain information. When gamma waves are uncontrolled, they cause anxiety. However, experiments monitoring the brain waves of experienced Tibetan meditators brought a surprise. They showed that the gamma waves were 2-3 times higher than the resting level, a surprising level of alertness even though they were in a relaxed meditative state. It also showed sustained gamma synchrony, meaning that waves from different parts of the brains were functioning in remarkable harmony.
Beta waves are linked to the act of performing ordinary tasks in everyday life, like planning, organizing, maintaining to-do lists, etc.
Alpha waves are more active when we engage in relaxing activities. So, this is where meditation plays a big role. Alpha waves also protect the brain by not allowing it to pay too much heed to superficial thoughts and stimuli. That explains why when we meditate regularly we are able to control the mind and stop it from getting carried away by external events. In Psychology Today, an article said, “Neuroscientists recently made a correlation between an increase of alpha brain waves—either through electrical stimulation or mindfulness and meditation—and the ability to reduce depressive symptoms and increase creative thinking.”
Even slower than alpha is Theta waves. They are active during deep relaxation, dreaming, and very deep states of meditation and relaxation. This is also where the practice of Yoga Nidra is most effective. And, Delta waves are associated with deep, dreamless sleep.
This helps us understand how modern science is backing the benefits of meditation we often hear of and experience with regular practice. Sages and yogis from centuries have been telling us about the profound benefits of meditation on the mind, body and soul, and how it improves well-being. Well, here’s the science behind it.
Regular practice develops areas of the brain responsible for memory, compassion and empathy, while shrinking areas associated with stress, anxiety and fear, such as the amygdala. Positive neurotransmitters like dopamine increase while negative ones (like anxiety related) decrease.
Meditation also enables changes in gray matter volume to reduce activity in the “me” centers of the brain and enhances connectivity between brain regions. A study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, said meditation improves the way people process pain by actively reducing the stress of adverse reactions to discomfort, even when the meditators are not meditating.
Keeps the brain sharp despite aging
A UCLA study found that meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had more gray matter volume throughout the brain. There was some volume loss compared to younger meditators, but it was not as prominent as the non-meditators.
A Yale University study found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain network responsible for the mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts, that is, the ‘monkey mind’. The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. And, a wandering mind is associated with being restless, worried and less happy, the goal is to dial it back. Many scientists have looked into the calm and quieting effect on the DMN so as to relax the wandering mind. And even when the mind does start to wander, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.
Reduction in the need for antidepressants for depression and anxiety
A Johns Hopkins study looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Madhav Goyal and his team of researchers found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. This is the same effect size for antidepressants. So, that means meditation has about the same effect as antidepressants. In a way, meditation is allowing us to train the brain and mind, improving awareness.
Volume changes in the key areas of the brain
Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain in positive ways in a study in 2011. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. Research showed a decrease in the brain cell volume in the amygdala (responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress). These scientific findings matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well.
A second study by the team also found that after meditation training there were noticeable changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal. Participants backed this up by how they felt, that is, their psychological well-being.
Other scientific findings of the impact of meditation
Further to this, many studies have been conducted to deep dive into the effects of meditation on various areas. One such area being focus and concentration, which is a challenge for not just kids, but many adults too. A study found that a couple of weeks of meditation helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. Since a key factor to meditate correctly is focus, it is safe to say that meditation helps improve people’s cognitive skills at work too.
Meditation also reduces anxiety, and social anxiety. A Stanford University team found that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety. Meditation even helps overcome addiction by making areas of the brain stronger that enable one to pass over the phase of craving.
For kids, meditation greatly helps the developing mind. It provides cognitive and emotional benefits, as well as resilience for children to deal with the pressures of social media and peers.
The benefits of meditation make up a long list that cover physical, physiological and mental. But with so many advances today, the evidence is not lacking. Regular practice impacts the brain and the electrochemical activities in the brain in profound, life-changing ways. Start or advance your meditation practice with an experienced teacher and watch these wonderful changes come to life.