Your brain is an unimaginably complex electrochemical organ. There’s always a certain level of electric activity going on there regardless of whether you are sleeping or mentally alert, engaged in activities or engrossed in meditation. Scientists have been trying to determine exactly what the effects of meditation are on the mind and body. So far, their conclusions have been compelling, for example in this blog article in Scientific American. When you train your brain to be alert and relaxed during meditation, you not only heighten your emotional intelligence, you also strengthen your mind. And a strong, resilient mind naturally enhances physical well-being.
Meditation benefits for the brain
Just about everybody agrees that mindfulness benefits the brain in a number of ways. An article published in Forbes magazine presents 7 ways that “meditation can actually change the brain.” The benefits cited range from improved preservation of the aging brain to better results for students at school.
An eight-week study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness seemed to indicate that after just two months of daily mindfulness – a half hour per day – not only had participants’ brains begun to change, but they already “felt more capable of acting with awareness, observing, and remaining nonjudgmental.”
Much has been made of meditation’s effect on brain waves. When messages are transmitted between neurons, this creates a current. Scientists call brain waves “neural oscillations.” One broadly accepted classification system goes from the highest, most subtle, oscillation to the lowest: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Each corresponds with a certain kind of activity.
Gamma waves predominate when our minds are actively learning or in hyperactivity mode. They boost the learning process; information is most easily retained in the gamma state. Uncontrolled gamma waves can cause anxiety, so it was a surprise when (now famous) experiments monitoring the brain waves of experienced Tibetan meditators during practice showed that their gamma waves were actually two to three times higher than the resting level – an extraordinary level of alertness even though they were in a profound, relaxed state of meditation. Monitoring also showed sustained gamma synchrony: this means that waves from different parts of their brains were functioning in remarkable harmony.
Beta waves are second in line. They usually dominate when our minds are consciously performing ordinary tasks as we go about our everyday business: planning, organizing, and so on.
The slower Alpha waves tend to predominate when we’re engaged in activities that relax the mind and body: taking nature walks, attending a yoga class, and, of course, meditating. Alpha waves are also thought to protect the brain from paying too much attention to superfluous thoughts and stimuli. Sounds a lot like mindfulness practice, doesn’t it? A blog in Psychology Today proposes that “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.”
The still slower Theta waves are active during deep relaxation, dreaming, and… Zen meditation.
Finally, Delta waves are usually associated with deep, dreamless sleep.
There’s no need to remember all these types of brain waves, but it can be motivating to realize that modern scientific evidence confirms what meditators have known for thousands of years: meditation is good for body and soul. You can actually learn to experience well-being both in your body and in that elusive mind of yours. Just sit, be mindful, and let your body and mind naturally become relaxed and alert. The brain waves will take care of themselves!
Meditation develops certain areas of the brain, such as those that are responsible for memory, compassion, and empathy. Meanwhile, parts of the brain associated with fear, stress, and anxiety (such as the amygdala – the “fight or flight” center) begin to shrink. Anxiety neurotransmitters may decrease, whereas the pleasurable neurotransmitter dopamine may increase. These and other subtle changes result in an overall feeling of improvement in your health and wellbeing. For more information check out this article on How Meditation Changes the Brain.
Expert meditation teacher Rachel Parrish says that meditation allows us to gradually change those habitual patterns that we dislike in ourselves. In addition, scientists have documented that meditation helps foster resilience. According to a study at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, it also seems to improve the way people process pain by actively reducing the stress of adverse reactions to discomfort, even when the meditators are not meditating!