How Does Meditation Help the Brain?
Meditation and mindfulness have entered the public consciousness. As scientists continue to research this practice, they reveal more and more evidence about the benefits of meditation. It not only can change your sense of well being but can also actually change the structure of your brain.
Here at Pathfinders, we have several relaxation techniques that use aspects of meditation. They involve directed attention, deep breathing from the diaphragm, and visualization techniques. But these are only fragments of the many ways meditation can be practiced. It’s not all incense and “om.” Before talking about the way meditation changes the brain, let’s look at some meditation misconceptions.
When someone says “meditation,” you might immediately think of someone sitting with their legs crossed, eyes closed, saying “om,” burning incense and having a completely quiet mind. While this is how meditation can look for some individuals, this is not what meditation is about.
You do not have to sit cross-legged with a completely straight back to meditate. While this lotus position is one that long-time practitioners of mediation prefer, you can sit in a chair with your back supported, lie down or even walk while meditating. You are not expected to sit stiff, upright and unmoving while you meditate, especially as a beginner. You don’t even have to keep your eyes closed!
Zen meditation has practitioners focus on a point on the ground a few feet in front of them, eyes half opened. One blog lists 23 methods of meditation. The ways you can meditate are nearly endless.
Mantra meditation is a traditional practice, which uses a mantra as a tool to deepen meditation. But many methods do not use a mantra or even require a quiet mind.
Mindfulness meditation asks you to focus on the thoughts or sensations that naturally pop up. You’re not required to completely empty your mind, just notice what you are thinking and feeling and objectively follow the natural progression of your thoughts.
Vipassana meditation takes a slightly different turn. With this practice, you label the thoughts or sensations that interrupt your focus on your breathing. You simply notice the thought and redirect your attention back. This is definitely not easy at first, but meditation is something you practice, not something you master.
Another common misconception is thinking you have to be religious, or of a certain religion, to meditate. While meditation originated in Eastern religions, meditation is not itself a religious act. You can incorporate your personal faith, even Western ones, into your meditation practice if you choose, but it is not a requirement.
Meditation is so much more than relaxation. A calm mind and relaxed body is a by-product of meditation, but it is not the goal. Meditation cultivates a deeper sense of awareness by using focused attention, introspection, and relaxation. Relaxation is a beautiful thing, but without the attention and introspection pieces, it isn’t meditation.
Many of us have very busy lives and feel we can’t spare the time for meditation. As a beginner, meditating for just one minute per day is a great start. The positive results of meditation don’t take years, either. With just 20 minutes of daily meditation, people have reported lasting positive results after just 8 weeks!
For those with ADHD or other attention difficulties, meditation may seem to be impossible. However, with practice, those individuals will benefit the most from meditation. Meditation is a practice and it is brain training. It takes time to retrain the mind into new patterns of thinking and mindfulness. By practicing meditation, you can train your brain to focus better and maybe even be more still and relaxed in your body, but there is always walking meditation until then.
Now that we’ve explored a clearer picture of meditation, let’s discuss how it positively affects the brain.
The “Me Center” of the brain, located in the medial prefrontal cortex, is key to understanding how meditation affects anxiety. The “Me Center” is the self-referencing part of the brain. It is how we relate our thoughts, experiences, memories, and dreams back to ourselves. It also helps us empathize with others.
The “Me Center” normally has a strong connection with the insula and amygdala, responsible for body sensation, specifically the “gut instinct,” and fear response, respectively. Meditation has shown to weaken this link between the “Me Center” and these feeling centers. This means when you feel a pain in your arm, you don’t jump to the conclusion there is something really wrong with your health. It also means when you’re feeling anxious or scared, you don’t react as strongly to it. With meditation, you are better able to notice your pain or anxiety, without thinking you have a problem or are a problem.
The “Me Center” is also responsible for those circling thoughts of past regrets or embarrassments. These thoughts are hard to turn off and don’t often make us feel happy. Meditation helps us rely less upon the “Me Center,” which then reduces the occurrence of these unhealthy thought patterns.
Meditation that uses focused attention techniques directly practices attention skills. As you practice meditation over time, you are better able to keep your attention focused on one thing, ignore distractions and redirect your attention when distracted. These are amazing skills to increase productivity and help those with ADHD. Being able to focus aids in memory and the retention of new material. Schools that are incorporating meditation breaks into the school day are seeing better grades, better attendance, and fewer suspensions.
As meditation continues to be practiced by more people, the research surrounding it will grow. So far, numerous studies have proven that meditation does indeed change the brain, and by extension, a person’s outlook on life. Meditation is free, which is not too common these days. It is something you cannot fail at, but something to be practiced. And it can change your life for the better. Perhaps it’s time to give it a try.