This is Your Brain on Meditation

Meditation can be defined as willfully and purposefully regulating one’s attention, either for relaxation, self-realization, or growth and transcendence.

This willful and purposeful regulation of attention can be broadly defined in two categories. 

1) Focusing attention on a changing object (body scan, progressive muscle relaxation, or a movement practice such as yoga)

2) An unchanging repetitive object which is continuously held in focus such as mantra meditation, breathing meditation, or drumming.

Either way, both of these forms require intentional, directed focus or ‘mindful awareness.’ It doesn’t particularly matter what type of meditation you practice – what has been studied and been shown to be most effective is just that you practice purposeful awareness.

What’s in it for me?

Some of the physiological benefits of meditation are, an increased feeling of wellbeing, increased dopamine in the brain, helps prevent aging and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s by increasing the volume of grey matter throughout the brain. Meditation also reduces activity in the default mode network, which is responsible for ruminating thoughts and mind wandering.

A study at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between meditation and anxiety, depression, and pain; the result of the study was that meditation had the same effect size on subjects as taking antidepressant medications. Brain imaging has also revealed that while meditation increases the volume in critical areas that affect emotional regulation, happiness, longevity, and learning. It also reduces brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.

Another study showed that meditators had significantly more neural density, cortical thickness, and overall activity within their prefrontal cortex.

Why is this significant?

The prefrontal cortex is:

  • The youngest part of our brain
  • The last part to develop
  • Center of higher thinking, reasoning, decision making, this is also the part of our brain that makes us feel connected and feel fulfilled. It is a very evolved part of the brain.
  • When we are completely regulated, the frontal lobe is online, and we can abstract, reason, weigh our options, and connect with others.
  • The more we can stay in this part of our brain, the better we will feel.

However, when we are triggered, traumatized, threatened, or chemically dependent this critical region of the brain is effectively offline.

When our prefrontal cortex is offline, we are into our ancient reptilian brain – the amygdala, and into our unconscious system of fight, flight, freeze. In this state, our bodies release adrenaline, cortisol, and a variety of other stress hormones. Due to the fear inherent with these responses, sometimes we become stuck in a hypo- or hyper-aroused nervous system state.

When we are hypo- aroused it may feel like depression, listlessness, anhedonia

When we are hyper-aroused we may feel jittery, anxious, “excited,” sped up

How can meditation help?

Brain scans show that the focused and sustained awareness during meditation helps to manually down-regulate the central nervous system, shifting your body chemistry out of “fight, flight or freeze.”

Additionally, during meditation, dopamine levels were shown to increase by 65% and remained at higher, more optimal baselines even when not in meditation.

Meditation provides a sustainable and adaptable way to help the brain and body recover from stress and activation. When you meditate, you’re effectively bringing your prefrontal cortex back online, as well as, moving from sympathetic activation to parasympathetic activation (rest, repair, digest). In this state, your body can heal and repair, you’re able to make decisions, and feel happier and more connected.

The most significant long-term effects are seen in the brain scans of long-term meditators showing us that these are ongoing sustainable changes. The neural pathways in the brain are like a muscle; the more healthy adaptive pathways are used, the stronger they become. The less you engage in unhealthy pathways, the weaker they will become.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Other than helping our brain and body regulate using meditation, we can use mindfulness practices to help combat unhelpful thoughts in daily life. When negative or compulsive thought patterns arrive, you can observe the thought and choose whether or not to engage in what your mind is trying to get you to think about. 

“While being mindful, we usually experience that our lives are not instantaneously threatened, that is, in the real present, right here and now, there is no life-threatening danger, and consequently there is actually no specific ‘reason’ to be stressed or alarmed” (Schmidt, Walach, 2013, p. 155).

You can choose your destiny

We can choose to strengthen whichever neural pathway will most suit where we want to go. What belief are you feeding? Our minds are the most powerful tool we have; each time we choose to attach to or engage in negative beliefs, we engrain them deeper into our psyche and our experience. 

The brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor said, “Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood, and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment.”

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