How meditation changes your brain
By Sogol Mousavi
Meditation has gained popularity in recent years, with many people practicing it in hopes of warding off stress and related health problems. Mindful meditation in particular involves sitting comfortably, drawing your focus to your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into thoughts about the past or the future (Corliss, 2014).
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard, is conducting multiple research studies in which the investigators studied brain scans to determine how mindfulness and meditation affects your brain.
The first study compared people who meditated, to a control group, and found that meditators have an increased amount of grey matter in the sensory regions of their brains. This indicates that when you’re in a state of mindfulness, you’re paying attention to your breathing and the present moment, which in turn causes your cognition, the area responsible for acquiring knowledge and understanding, to shut down. Furthermore, there was also more grey matter in the part of the brain which is associated with working memory and executive decision making (Hölzel, 2010).
It is also widely known that our cortex shrinks as we age, which makes it more difficult to figure things out and remember things. However, in this one region of the brain, the researchers found that 50 year old meditators had the same amount of grey matter as 25 year olds (Hölzel, 2010).
Therefore, in order to rule out the fact that perhaps the people in the first study started out with more grey matter than the average individual before they started meditating, they conducted a second study in which they took people who had never meditated before, and put one of the groups through an eight-week mindfulness based stress reduction program.
After eight weeks, they measured brain volume in five different regions of the brain. In the group that learned meditation, they found enhancement in the regions of the brain responsible for wandering, self-relevance, learning/cognition, memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion, among others (Lazar, 2005).
In contrast, the fight or flight part of the brain, responsible for anxiety, fear, and stress in general got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (Lazar, 2005). Dr Lazar equates mindfulness to exercise for the brain, as it increases health, helps us handle stress more effectively and promotes longevity.
The Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria (ARCVic) has additional info on how to manage anxiety and stress. One such example is deep breathing exercise, which can be done simultaneously to mindful meditation exercises:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose and you should feel your stomach rise up.
- Hold your breath for a couple of seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through your nose, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your stomach muscles. You should feel your stomach move down.
- Continue this exercise and count slowly to 3 as you breathe out – your stomach should always move more than your chest. As you get better at deep breathing you might want to count for longer. (ARCVic, n.d.)
If you feel that you are not comfortable sitting up or that you can’t feel your stomach moving then try lying down on the floor – this works just as well and it may help you to relax more.
Corliss, J. (2014, January 8). Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress [Web log post]. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-20140108696…
ARCVic, Deep Breathing Exercises. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.arcvic.org.au/anxiety-disorders/treatment-options?id=20
Holzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2010). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res, 191(1), 36-43. Retrieved July 12, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/.
Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893–1897.