In addition to relaxing the body and calming the mind, did you know that simply sitting and breathing mindfully can significantly change the brain? It’s true!
Meditation is Like Going to a Gym for the Mind
What are the meditation benefits for the brain you ask? Of course, you’ll enjoy greater mental clarity, lower levels of stress and reduced anxiety. But, studies have shown that there are actual physical changes—not just physiological ones—that make the connection of meditation and the brain even more profound.
In recent decades, meditation has become more mainstream. There are meditation groups meeting up everywhere. Individuals are spending more and more time investigating for themselves what used to seem like such a foreign practice in an effort to achieve an unattainable state. Few though attribute the popularity to obvious and scientifically proven results. There have been numerous neurological studies that have sought to determine what physical impacts meditation can have on that important, complex organ between our ears. By simply putting aside time daily to practice meditation, you can increase the amount of gray matter in your brain. Think of your home “meditation station” as a workout room for your mind. Instead of bigger biceps, you end up with greater volume in four key areas of your brain.
Try it for yourself. Studies show that with just eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—a fancy term for meditation—you can literally change the structure of your brain.
This is the area in the brain that helps us learn. The tools that we use for cognitive ability and memory are found there, as are our emotional regulators. As the cortical thickness of the hippocampus grows in volume through meditation, the components associated with those learning functions get stronger.
Does your mind wander like a goldfish surfing the web? Do you tend to think you are the center of the universe? Both of these mind events occur in the posterior cingulate. Training the mind to stay still is a predominant facet of meditation. When we sit our minds begin to wander and bounce around from one random thought about the past or future to the next. It’s often called the “monkey mind”. Studies have shown one of the vitally important effects of meditation on the mind is being able to remain in the present moment without worry, regret or anticipation. According to researchers, a regular meditation practice can produce equal results and relief from anxiety and depression–often caused by an abnormal sense of self relevance—as many pharmaceuticals do. Meditation isn’t alone a panacea for depression as no treatment is, but it’s one of the tools that can help manage symptoms. The larger and stronger the posterior cingulate, the less the mind wanders and the more rational the sense of self can be.
This is the part of the brainstem where a significant amount of neurotransmitters are produced that help to regulate our brain activity. The more of these “guardians of our gourd” we have pulsing through our mind, the more efficiently our brain can function. To continue the bodybuilding analogy, the Pons is the juice bar at the gym that is serving up refreshing energy shakes to fuel your workout.
The Temporo Parietal Junction (TPJ)
We all would like to be better people—nicer to others, more humane and just. A larger TPJ can help you do just that. Our empathy and compassion emanate from there as do all of our perspectives on the outside world. Basically, the posterior cingulate focuses on ourselves and the TPJ shines the light on everything else. A stronger TPJ—combined with the other benefits of meditation like lower stress and present moment awareness—can help us be that beacon of peace will all wish we could be.
There is another area of the brain that is changed through MBSR. But, it doesn’t get larger; it gets smaller. The amygdala—the pesky corner of the brain that produces feelings of anxiety, fear and general stress—has been shown to actually shrink over the eight week study. The smaller it gets, the less it can affect our emotions. No wonder we all feel so great after incorporating a daily meditation regimen into our lives.
Typically, when we think of mindfulness and the brain, thoughts of mental clarity, reduced stress and lower anxiety pop up. We now know our brain is physically altered too. What was once thought to be New Age hippy mumbo jumbo is now backed by scientific study and extensive research. What’s keeping you from giving meditation a try, now, Einstein?