How Meditation Actually Changes the Brain
Posted by Trevida Staff - October 19, 2016
When it comes to the practical health benefits of yoga and meditation — and holistic approaches to wellness in general — there is often a certain level of skepticism.
It’s natural that there are some doubts about the matters. After all, where are the infomercials for meditation pillows? Even though the media may not widely promote meditation, researchers have been looking into its benefits for over six decades.
As early as the 1950’s, Harvard University began looking into the positive health benefits of yoga and meditation, alongside simple deep breathing exercises. The medical community used to believe that your brain reaches a peak and that, after a certain age, the neural pathways begin to shut down. Now, we know that you can train your brain and change the way that you think. And, mindfulness meditation can help; it can actually rewire your brain.
What is mindfulness meditation? It’s a technique used by a wide range of people to teach your brain to let go of troubling thoughts. The idea is pretty straight-forward. You sit in a comfortable position, such as on a chair or a meditation pillow, close your eyes, and then pay attention to your breathing.
After a single session, you should notice that you feel more relaxed, calm, and clear-minded. But, these are not necessarily temporary results. With repeated use, yoga and meditation begin to change the way that you think and act. It will alter your brain in a positive way, by helping you focus, preventing depression, and increasing your cognitive function.
Meditation Can Help You Stay Focused
Even though the primary goal of mindfulness meditation is to calm your mind, it can also help you stay focused. Researchers from Yale University found that this form of meditation can reduce activity in the DMN1, or default mode network, in your brain. This is the network that’s active when your mind is wandering. When you have a lot of DMN activity, you will find it hard to concentrate and stay focused. Meditation lowers this activity while increasing the activity in your lower frontal cortex.
These same benefits may help people that suffer from ADD or that have trouble concentrating. In fact, you can improve your concentration within just a few weeks2. In a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers looked at the increased reading comprehension scores and memory capacity after two weeks of mindfulness training and concluded that this simple practice can help improve cognitive function.
So, if you’re a regular daydreamer and find your mind getting distracted easily, mindfulness meditation might be able to help you out.
Meditation Can Protect Your Gray Matter
There is some exciting research looking into the benefits of meditation for preventing the gradual loss of gray matter. In other words, you can keep your brain from shrinking.
Researchers from UCLA found a distinct difference in gray matter volume in the brain when comparing people who meditate regularly to those that don’t meditate3. 50-year-old participants that regularly meditate had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
While there is a natural deterioration of the brain after the first twenty years of life, meditation could slow this down, which could reduce the risk of age-related illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to keeping your gray matter volume from shrinking, meditating could lead to changes in other areas of your brain. For example, Harvard researchers discovered this calming practice may decrease the volume of amygdala brain cells4, which are responsible for feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear. There was a marked decrease in stress levels among participants following an eight-week meditation course.
Meditation Promotes Happiness
Meditation may be able to slow down the aging of your brain, but a long life is better when you’re actually happy. Regular meditation can provide the same positive effects as the use of antidepressants in treating depression5. This does not mean that meditating will instantly bring inner peace, but it’s a good place to start. If you currently take antidepressants, you may even be able to give up your prescription after including meditation in your routine for several months.
Improve Your Ability to Relate to Others
A major part of mindfulness meditation is being mindful in everything that you do, including listening to other people. If you have trouble relating to others, then meditation may be the solution that you need.
A 12-year study6 found that long-term meditation can increase your ability to relate to people. According to the study, people that regularly meditate are more likely to feel an enhanced reaction to a stranger that is feeling stressed out. Though, the author of this study also noted other improvements.
Along with helping you emphasize with others, he found that long-term meditators were less likely to get agitated by a startling or unexpected experience. When an alarm goes off, you are less likely to become startled. Instead, you are able to remain calm and relaxed, as you are living in the present and not worrying about what problems the alarm may pose or what’s to come afterwards.
You Can Enjoy Long-Lasting Health Benefits
As mentioned, the health benefits of meditation are not meant to be temporary, and there is research to back this up. J. David Creswell, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, wanted to show that these positive results are not just a placebo effect and conducted a study7 to look into the matter.
The study include 35 participants. While half of the group was taught mindfulness meditation and told to focus on relaxation and breathing, the other half was given stretching exercises and told to talk to their fellow participants.
After three days, both groups noted a significant reduction in their stress levels. The difference came when researchers examined the group four months later. The meditation group showed lower levels of a compound linked to inflammation and enjoyed less stress than their counterparts in the study.
It Does Not Take Long to Begin Noticing Results
Long-term health benefits of yoga and meditation await you if you start practicing today. But, this does not mean that you won’t benefit immediately. Even after your first few minutes, you should come away relaxed and focused. With each passing day, you should find it easier to remain focused on your breathing. You will slowly begin improving your ability to get rid of distracting thoughts.
Start Practicing Your Meditation Today
As busy as you are, you should be able to put aside a few minutes for yourself to practice mindfulness and focus on your health.
Before you start meditating, turn off your phone, the television, and get away from any external noises or distractions. If finding a quiet spot is a problem, you could listen to meditation music through a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Drown out external noises and allow the music to keep you centered and focused on your breathing. You can find meditation music online for free or use a music streaming app on your smartphone.
When you start meditating, random thoughts will enter your brain. This is completely natural. You do not want to attempt to block out these thoughts. You know how when you try to stop humming a song it gets stuck in your head the rest of the day? The same is true with your thoughts. If you’re constantly dwelling on the same stresses and worries, meditation will help you let go.
During your meditation, when these thoughts enter your brain, you will make a mental note of their presence, without considering them further. Allow them to pass by refocusing your attention on your breathing. Continue to refocus whenever you find yourself having trouble getting a thought to move on.
Keep Your Body Comfortable with a Meditation Pillow
Learning how to get rid of distractions is just one part of mindfulness meditation. You also need to make sure that your body is comfortable and well supported. Most of us are not used to sitting on the floor for a prolonged period, and a standard bed pillow does not offer proper support.
Meditation pillows are specifically made for this purpose. They have a gradual curve that helps you maintain good posture and prevents unnecessary pressure on your back or spine while practicing your meditation.
The meditation pillow or cushion that you choose should support your weight and feel comfortable while seated. Generally, you’ll sit cross-legged or in lotus pose, while on your meditation cushion to best help with alignment. If you suffer from back pain or sciatica, then these pillows can bring major relief, allowing you to actually focus on your meditation instead of your constant pain.
If you want to enjoy the benefits discussed, you’ll need to practice meditating. You do not have to start off with twenty or thirty minutes of meditation each day. In fact, you’ll probably find it hard to sit still for that long. But, with ongoing practice, you will build up to these longer stretches. Many of the studies discussed above were conducted using individuals that meditate daily. It requires repeated use to begin having a lasting impression on your brain.
The bottom line is that mindfulness meditation is proven to have a beneficial impact on the health of your brain. So, start with a few minutes and work your way up to twenty minutes of meditation. About 8 percent of adults8 have given it a try — now it’s your turn.
1.Brewer, Judson A, et al. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/50/20254.short
2.Mrazek, Michael D, et al. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/24/5/776
3.Luders E, Cherbuin N, and Kurth F.
4.Hölzel, Britta K, et al. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/
5.Goyal, Madhav MD, MPH, et al
6.Davidson, Richard J.
7.Creswell, David J.
8.Clarke, Tanya C, Black, Lindsey I. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr079.pdf
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