What happens to your brain when you meditate

You’ve heard about the benefits of meditation. You’ve even downloaded a few of those apps. But for some reason, you haven’t stuck to a real meditation routine. 

Many of us start out with good intentions regarding meditation. We get over-ambitious and stock up on the right “stuff” [Zafu cushion, suitably small spirituality-inducing statue and a special candle] and now it’s all gathering dust in a corner of the room. 

You too? 

Let’s try a different tactic. 

It might help to re-frame the concept of meditation by examining what it does to your brain

People who meditate are calmer than the rest of us.

Researchers at Harvard have been studying the effects of mindfulness for decades now. Dr. Gaëlle Desbordes, from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)-Harvard-MIT Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, has been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify and record brain activity. 

Her work has been instrumental in helping us understand what’s going on in our heads when we get mindful. Not only did the meditators in her study show a more “steady state” in their amygdala area of the brain while in meditation, but they also continued to demonstrate more “even behavior” when going about their daily lives

Meditation makes you smarter.

Another researcher, Dr. Sara Lazar, was the first to detect increased “thickness” in their subject’s brains after an 8-week meditation course. Here’s what the National Institutes of Health recorded from her trial:

“Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared to a wait-list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole-brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls.” 

What does this mean? Well, the increased thickness means the brain functions better. Here’s the scientific response from NIH:

“The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective-taking.”

And here’s our real-world translation: regular meditation helps us regulate our emotions (we don’t get too freaked out by the unexpected stuff, or taking down into terrible lows by rainy days). It also gives us a better perspective on life, love, death and all the parts in between. Essentially, we become easier people to be around. Sounds good, right?

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation/brain studies, the Harvard Medical School [HMS] reports that many medical-based institutions have gathered together under the Mindfulness Research Collaborative. These include: HMS; Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine; Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance and more. 

Wait! Got five minutes?

Before you dash off and get stuck into your day, try this.

Start with a few minutes a day and build up to longer sessions over time. 

When you know what’s going on inside your head, it’ll make it easy to make time to meditate. Close your eyes, feel your nervous system head into a chill zone, while your brain thickens and gets smarter.


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