Originally an ancient Buddhist meditation technique, in recent years has become the focus of study from a more scientific approach based on clinical evidence. Since the 1980’s yoga and mediation has become a popular system of physical exercise in America. Yogis across the western world boast of the numerous benefits that can be gained through asana and meditational practice: lowers blood pressure/slows down the cardiovascular system, restores balanced function to the digestive system, aiding absorption of nutrients, relaxes the nervous system, relieves muscle tension, diminishes intensity of headaches/migraines, relieves insomnia, releases fears, reduces anxiety, alleviates depression, generates optimism, self-esteem, confidence, motivation, and frees the mind from self doubt and internal chatter. However, there is a plethora of recent studies about what “mindfulness meditation” is actually doing to your brain to achieve such a lengthy list of benefits. According to several accredited neurologists and universities including Harvard, daily meditation (15-30 min) for eight weeks substantially alters brain function and connectivity between the major four lobes of the cerebral cortex.
Meditation has been a widely accepted therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade. However, more recently websites such as GetSomeHeadSpace.com and numerous blogs are attracting millions of subscribers who, like myself, are trying to better understand the physical and mental benefits they are experiencing through meditation. “Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – permanently. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink” (Ireland). This primal region of the brain helps the body respond to emotions, memories, fear and is involved in the initial response to stress. “The amygdala is a large portion of the telencephalon, located within the temporal lobe which can be seen from the surface of the brain” (“Parts of the Brain and Their Functions”). This scientific observance alone gives credence to over half of the benefits, discussed above, that western yogis are raving about. A decrease in size of the portion of the brain that regulates ones’ reaction to stress helps explain the relaxation of the nervous system, reduction of anxiety and depression, and boost in self-esteem, confidence, and motivation. The culmination of these effects yields a mental state that is much less likely to suffer from self-doubt and insomnia.
“As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker” (Ireland). The prefrontal cortex is the cerebral cortex that covers the front part of the frontal lobe. This lobe, “ controls several elements including creative thought, problem solving, intellect, judgment, behavior, attention, abstract thinking, physical reactions, muscle movements, coordinated movements, smell and personality” (“Parts of the Brain and Their Functions”). The augmentation of the prefrontal cortex within eight weeks of meditation helps explain the yogic terminology “being/feeling present”. Ones’ sense of presence in the actual moment would naturally be heightened as awareness and the ability to concentrate are more readily accessed. This feeling of a peaceful presence in the moment is felt to an even greater degree directly after a practice of both asana and meditation due to the prolonged focus on ones’ breath, release of endorphins through physical exercise, and the relaxation of the body’s major systems that occur during corpse pose.
“The functional connectivity between these [the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex] regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger” (Ireland). Naturally, the degree by which the functional connectivity is altered correlates with the number of hours one practices meditation. Researchers from Harvard decided to observe and study meditational experts, yogis with 40,000 hours of recorded meditational practice. The advanced meditators reported feeling significantly less pain than the non-meditators during certain pain-inducing situations. However, scans of their brains showed slightly more activity in the areas associated with pain than the non-meditators. Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany said “It doesn’t fit any of the classical models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas (Ireland). “It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it- by altering the connectivity between two brain regions, which are normally communicating with one another. They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful” (Ireland).
Many leading neurologists believe the changes acquired through meditation become permanent after a certain mastery or length of time meditating. It is worth noting that in the pain inducing experiment, the expert meditators were not in a meditative state. It seems the pain lessening effect is not something acquired through a specific meditational state, but instead it is the outcome of a lifetime of rewiring brain level activity and the degree of connectivity between specific regions of the brain. Joshua Grant said “We asked them specifically not to meditate. There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different” (Ireland). Several independent studies on expert meditators agree that their resting brains look similar, when scanned, to novice meditators when they are meditating. At this level of expertise [40,000 hours of meditation], the prefrontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected. In fact, its size and activity start to decrease again. “It’s as if that way of thinking has become the default, it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration,” says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh (Ireland).
“The human brain is ultimately responsible for all thought and movement that the body produces. This allows humans to successfully interact with their environment, by communicating with others and interacting with inanimate objects. If the brain is not functioning properly, the ability to move, generate accurate sensory information or speak and understand language can be damaged as well” (“Parts of the Brain and Their Functions”). The picture being painted by meditational research is that a mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher-order, prefrontal cortex regions in order to down regulate lower-order brain activity. Hopefully, with growing awareness, humankind will utilize this tool to sharpen the mind to overcome the immanent obstacles of the future.
Ireland, Tom. “What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?.” Scientific American. 12 06 2014: n. page. Web. 26 Mar. 2015. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2014/06/12/what-does-
“Parts of the Brain and Their Functions.” MDhealth.com. MDhealth, 26 03 2015. Web. 26 Mar 2015. <http://www.md-health.com/parts-of-the-brain-and-function.html>.