How meditation and mindfulness can rewire the brain
With over 100 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion synaptic connections in the human brain, our neural pathways are constantly firing. The brain sends electrical signals without us even realizing it, but in our fast-paced society, we can sometimes feel like our mind is in overdrive. When we can feel our thoughts are racing, how can we turn them off?
Meditation is the practice of silencing our minds; it can be thought of as a daily reset button – freeing yourself from the past or the future, and simply being present. When practiced correctly and consistently, it is within our power to change our own brains.
Meditation: what, when and how
Latin meditation, which means “to reflect,” meditation is an ancient practice that trains our focus and awareness in an effort to achieve mental tranquility. Meditative practices date back generations, recorded in Eastern religious cultures as early as 1500 BCE. Even in its traditional, secular form, meditation is still heavily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
There are countless meditative techniques, including focused attention, mantra recitation, and compassion meditation. Mindfulness is an extremely popular form of meditation. There is no solid definition of mindfulness, but the general principle is to be intensely aware of the present moment – noticing your thoughts and bodily sensations as they come and go, but without judgement.
After reports of mindfulness meditation having immeasurable benefits on stress levels and mental well-being, Dr. John Kabat-Zinn founded mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in the 1970s. This 8-week course of weekly group mindfulness sessions and 45 minutes of daily training is widely accepted as an effective stress-busting technique.
The growing popularity of MBSR has caught the attention of researchers. With meditative techniques appearing to have benefits in countless clinical areas, scientists are beginning to understand just how powerful meditation can be – but can meditation change the brain?
Meditation rewires the brain
Until the 1990s, brain imaging was limited to a single shot; it was impossible to see how the brain was working in real time. That was until fMRI, a technique developed by Dr. Seiji Ogawa in 1990. This allowed researchers to image the brain during cognitive tasks and has since revealed the wonders of the brain’s meditative state.
Meditation has a pronounced effect on the Default Mode Network (DMN) – a set of brain regions that govern our self-centered and distracted thoughts. The DMN is our default mode to think and is more active when we think about ourselves, our past and our future.
For most people, our daily anxieties center around past mistakes, future concerns, or self-criticism. This inner thought can send our DMN into overdrive, which can be detrimental to our mental health.
When we meditate, we focus only on the present moment. This Switch off the DMN, then silencing our ego. Meditation uncouples connections between brain regions involved in stress and self-critical thinking, and improves connections between regions involved in attention and body awareness. these changes are even sustained beyond the act of meditating.
Meditation helps us become more aware of the world around us. We stop mentally traveling through time and only exist in the present, paying more attention to how we feel – physically and emotionally.
The beauty of the human brain is that the more (or less) we use a brain pathway, the stronger (or weaker) it becomes. The more we practice meditation, the more likely we are to foster present moment awareness. We are then less likely to slip into a spiral of negative thoughts about our past and future stresses.
This is a phenomenon similar to the psychedelic brain state, which is also characterized by the collapse of the DMN. Psychedelics effectively accelerate the brain into a deep meditative state. Scientists in the new wave of psychedelic research have even begun to investigate psychedelic assisted mindfulness in the hope that the two therapies, used in combination, could permanently shift the brain into a quieter state.
Meditation reshapes the brain
With consistent practice, meditation has the potential to induce permanent trait changes. This is because the human brain is surprisingly malleable; it can alter its structure and function by adapting to new environments – a process known as neuroplasticity.
Research on lifelong meditators indicates that meditation can physically alter the structure of our brains. A review of 21 brain imaging studies found consistent morphological differences in 8 brain regions between long-term meditators and non-meditators. These regions include those involved in body awareness, memory, and emotion regulation.
Fascinatingly, similar structural differences were noted after only 8 weeks of MBSR. Specifically, meditation has been found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory consolidation and skill acquisition. The researchers also found reductions in the volume of the amygdala, the “fight or flight” center in the brain that is responsible for triggering our stress response. A Follow-up study then revealed that these specific brain changes were correlated with improved mental well-being.
Meditation alters our brain waves
The electroencephalogram (EEG) is an alternative brain imaging technique used to analyze human thought by quantifying the frequency and location of electrical brain waves. In the language of neuroscience, these brain waves are called “neural oscillations”. There are different oscillation speeds which have been classified into bands and correspond to specific brain activity.
Generally speaking, faster brain waves – gamma and beta – are associated with active learning and cognitive tasks: planning ahead, solving problems, organizing our day, etc. Some studies have shown that meditation can reduce beta wave activity.
Mindfulness meditation too increases power in lower frequency bands, alpha and theta, which represent relaxed attention and deep relaxation respectively. These findings demonstrate that meditation can slow down our racing thoughts.
Where Meditation Meets Medicine
Mindfulness has been recommended by the NHS since 2005 and has become an effective tool for many, but not everyone has the time to practice meditation, or the motivation to do so. Happiness is not necessarily a learned skill, and pharmacological pathways should be used by those who need it.
That being said, numerous studies have revealed the therapeutic benefits of meditation. There are countless branches of clinical medicine that could use this practice.
Mindfulness training can be extremely effective in reducing ruminative thoughts, anxiety, depression, ADHD symptomsand even treat nicotine addiction. A revision paperPosted in JAMA International medicine, note that the effectiveness of meditation is the same as that of antidepressants. It’s by no means a breakthrough treatment, but evidence shows that meditation Is improve our mental well-being.
Besides improving our mood, meditation can even support our mental capacity. A study found that long-term meditators had reduced age-related atrophy (“shrinking” of the brain) compared to non-meditators of the same age. Mindfulness training has even been shown to improve cognitive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment, the most at risk of neurodegenerative disease. Remarkably, meditation seems to protect the aging brain.
Although meditation is a brain training technique, there is evidence to suggest that it can also benefit our physical well-being. Studies have shown that meditation can lower blood pressure, support our immune system, relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and even relieve chronic pain.
Outside of the clinic, meditation has never been so accessible. There is a growing number of apps for guided meditation, and there is even technology to direct your brain into the meditative state. Light up is an application, developed with the Science from mind meditation, which provides sensory input – light and sound – to launch the brain into a transcendental state. For those struggling with the early stages of mindfulness, this is a great place to start.
Meditation is a learned skill; it’s not always easy, but the practice itself is simple. Set aside a few minutes each day to quiet your mind, lessen your negative thoughts, and transform your brain.