What does science say about how meditation affects your brain?
Whether you’re new to mindfulness or a well-practiced guru, you probably know the scientific benefits of meditation include lower stress, anxiety, pain, insomnia, and symptoms of PTSD.¹
But meditation’s effect on the brain isn’t just about the psychological benefits. The neuroscience of meditation shows a consistent mindfulness practice physically changes your brain.
Researchers believe meditation may strengthen your brain, keeping it healthy and flexible just like your yoga class does for your body.
So what parts of the brain are affected by meditation? And how does meditation actually change the brain?
We’ll explore those questions and more as we discover:
How Meditation Affects Your Brain: 5 Science-Backed Changes and What They Mean
What happens scientifically when you meditate?
There are now thousands of studies examining the short and long-term effects of meditation on the body and mind. According to those researchers:
Meditation Keeps Your Neurons Happily Buzzing
Neurons send and receive messages between your brain and different parts of your body. The electrical activity generated by several neurons buzzing around together produces brain waves.²
Researchers studying mindfulness-based alternative therapies for treating opioid addiction discovered that meditation changes how your neurons move.³
In a meditative state, your brain teeters between four and eight Hertz, which produces theta oscillations, or theta waves. Theta waves feel really good. They create a peaceful resting and light-as-a-feather flow state.
Technically speaking, theta waves quiet your brain’s default mode network, or what’s responsible for that feeling of being stuck in your head. As theta waves rise, anxious and overwhelming thoughts subside.
And it’s not just your neurons that are affected by meditation.
Meditation Changes four Specific Regions in the Brain
How much does meditation change your brain physically?
Scientists studied long-term meditators and saw noticeable changes in four vital parts of their brains.⁴
A Larger Left Hippocampus
The left hippocampus is connected to learning, memory recall, cognitive ability, and emotional regulation. Meditation has been shown to increase the size of the left hippocampus, which promotes healthy brain function in all those areas.
This is where most meditators feel improvements in empathy and self-awareness.
A Larger, Thicker Posterior Cingulate
Your pesky, wandering thoughts come from your posterior cingulate.
This part of the brain is also connected to self-relevance or ego involvement, which is how you perceive things based on their significance to your self-esteem.
Based on what the researchers noticed, meditation may expand the size and density of your posterior cingulate.
The bigger and stronger this area of the brain is, the less you’ll have to deal with those wandering thoughts consuming your energy. You’ll also have a much more realistic sense of self.
Your pons connects your brain to your spinal cord, so it’s intrinsically linked with key areas that control mental and motor functions.
From helping you process sensory input and facial expressions to supporting your body during sleep and your daily physical functions, a healthy pons is crucial for your overall brain function.
The scientists found that meditating regularly may strengthen your pons. A stronger pons often correlates with healthier sleep patterns and less nerve pain.
Researchers realized the amygdalas in consistent meditators were actually smaller than those who didn’t meditate.
This is pretty good news considering your amygdala is responsible for those feelings of fear, anxiety, and overall stress.
If your amygdala physically takes up less space in your brain, you may devote less brain power to stressful thoughts.
Meditation Physically Changes the Brain’s Size
Studies show a positive association between cortical thickness and general intelligence/brain health.⁵ Similarly, cortical thinning may be evidence of cognitive impairment.⁶
So how does meditation affect the brain when it comes to size?
In one study, scientists learned that long-term meditators — those who practiced for over 20 years — showed functional and structural differences in their brains compared to their nonmeditating counterparts.⁷
Veteran meditators had more cortical thickness in an area of the brain that sits right next to our primary motor region. They also had more cortical thickness in the superior frontal complex, a region of the brain responsible for keeping our attention in focus.
Exercise can increase cortical thickness. But the researchers believe there’s a positive correlation between how long people practice meditating and cortical thickness.
Meditation Boosts Neural Plasticity to Keep You Sharp
Does meditation increase IQ?
Research shows meditation strengthens neural connections and cultivates more resilience in the brain.⁸ One body of evidence even revealed that meditation might be like taking a multivitamin for your brain’s overall well-being.⁹
So as the saying goes, meditation may help you “fire on all cylinders.”
Plus, the physical changes meditation causes your brain actually enhance its neuroplasticity.¹¹ This term refers to your brain’s ability to adapt and change structures and functions throughout life.
If you’re going through a stressful time, for example, regular meditation practice may allow you to block anxious thoughts while working to heal the mind-body continuum that may be causing your dismay.
Even better news? These researchers revealed that meditation changes the brain in just eight weeks with consistent practice.
Meditation Helps Preserve Brain Health
Regularly meditating may keep your brain operating optimally for as long as possible.
In one study, scientists compared meditators and nonmeditators aged 24 to 77.¹¹ They learned both groups’ brain health naturally declined over time. However, the drop was steeper in people who did not meditate.
They specifically noticed that meditators had higher volumes of gray matter — which is loaded with neurons that process new information and send necessary signals.
By preventing gray matter from decreasing as quickly, the researchers concluded that meditation may preserve brain health as we age.
Now That You Know How Meditation Changes Your Brain, Here’s How to Reap the Benefits
Experts studying the brain before and after meditation all agree: the scientific benefits of mindfulness are worth the practice.
So the best thing you can do to capture those physical and psychological perks is to start or stay consistent with your meditation time.
If you’re learning how to meditate, spend just five minutes each day tuning out the noise and tuning in to yourself.
If you’re having trouble focusing — trust us, you’re not alone. Try practicing with a guided meditation video on YouTube or Spotify. Hearing an experienced voice giving clear instructions for what to do may help reign in your distracted mind so you can look inward.
Remember, you don’t need a perfect meditation practice to notice the effects. Keep at it even if your mind wanders, and commit to a consistent daily practice.
As you learned today, meditation changes your brain in so many positive ways, and your mental health deserves that kind of boost.
1. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-and-mindfulness-what-you-need-to-know 2.https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.01125/full#:~:text=At%20the%20network%20level%2C%20the,waves%20(Buzsaki%2C%202006). 3.https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/meditation-changes-your-neurons-brain?utm_campaign=41517&utm_medium=inverse&utm_source=newsletter&utm_session=0aff7564-2a8d-4239-a703-6c572559182c 4.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/ 5. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0230298 6. https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/84/8/875 7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3541490/ 8. https://askthescientists.com/brain-meditation/ 9. https://mindworks.org/blog/how-meditation-changes-the-brain/ 10. https://mindworks.org/blog/how-meditation-changes-the-brain/ 11. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551/full
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