How Meditation can Change your Brain

We have all heard of the countless health benefits of meditation, or even experienced them ourselves, if we are regular practitioners. Benefits of meditation range from increased focus and attention over managing stress to a relief of anxiety and depression.

But recent scientific research also suggests that meditation even possesses the ability to physically change and rewire our brain’s structure and the way it reacts to outside stimuli. In the end, it only confirms what regular meditators already know, but it is also groundbreaking news in the science world! For long periods of time it was believed that our brain is fixed when we reach adulthood. But new studies suggest that we possess the ability to mold our brains into new connections through the power of meditation. And apparently it takes only eight weeks!

Do you want to find out how you can change your brain for the better by sitting on a pillow with eyes closed? Then continue reading, as we outline the scientific changes and  benefits meditation has on your most important organ. 

Meditation increases the volume of grey matter – Better learning and increased memory

A study conducted by the Harvard University in 2011 found out that eight weeks of mindfulness based meditation practices can actually increase gray matter and literally grow our brains. Gray matter are the neural cells in our brain, which are connected by white matter. The grey matter in the left hippocampus region of meditators was found to be thicker. The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory, which indicates that meditation could help us in learning faster and helps us remember what we would have otherwise forgotten.

A change in brain structure – More self-control and concentration

Another study at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences indicates that meditation has the ability to reframe our brains. Subjects of the study trained in a mindfulness practice over 12 weeks and were regularly tracked through EEGs. After that period, the meditators showed changed areas in the brain that are related to attention, self-control and organization. Through meditating, the subjects’ brains were remodeled in a way that their behaviors were changed to gain more self-control and self-management. 

Because of the change in areas of our brain related to self-control and organization, meditation can also help people recover from addictions like smoking or alcoholism. A study concluded that a mindfulness practice is able to actively help people quit smoking. After 17 weeks of mindfulness practice, test persons who incorporated a meditation practice were way more likely to quit smoking and not start again than persons who received only conventional treatment. This might be because meditation helps people to stay present in the moment and experience the craving simply as a bodily response, decoupled from their minds.

A shrinking amygdala – Less stress, fear and anxiety

Another area affected by meditation is the amygdala. In contrast to the gray matter that expands, the amygdala shrinks with a regular meditation practice. The amygdala is responsible for our fight-flight state. It is activated in a state of survival and produces feelings of stress, anxiety and fear. The smaller our amygdala is, the less it will dictate our emotional responses. In this case, we will experience more relaxing states due to a smaller amygdala. This outcome matches self-reports of meditators on lowered stress levels and more stable mental health. 

A denser posterior cingulate – Say bye to the monkey mind 

The posterior cingulate is a part of the brain concerned with wandering thoughts and self-relevance, meaning how subjectively and with referral to ourselves we are processing information. Meditation aims at keeping us in the present moment, not allowing the mind to wander away and observe our thoughts without judgment or personal reference. It seems as if a larger and stronger posterior cingulate, as seen in meditators, prohibits the monkey mind from arising and gives us a more realistic sense of self. The result: we are more in the present moment and the here and now and worry less about the past or the future. With an increased posterior cingulate are we are also able to bring our mind faster back to the present moment when it starts to wander. 

Decreasing activity in the brain’s pain centers – Less experience of pain

A research of English scientists suggest that ten minutes of meditation per day can increase pain tolerance. Meditation strengthens our mind – our brain – which essentially is also a muscle in our body. The study suggests that through meditation, activity in our brain’s pain centers is decreased. The study’s subjects were exposed to a source of pain, those who had meditated before experienced less pain. 

Already The Iceman Wim Hof got famous for his ability to withstand extremely painful and cold temperatures through meditation and breathing exercises. You don’t have to go that extreme, but the next time you experience something small painful like having a blood sample taken, try to meditate beforehand. 

The fact that meditation rewires our brain to gain more focus, better memory, manage our emotions, helps us to self-reflect and quiets the monkey mind is only a scientific proof to what the yogis already know since more than 2500 years and what many regular meditators also experience. However, science shows that meditation is actually responsible for physical effects in our brains as well. Science acknowledging the benefits of meditation could lead to a recognition of meditation in treatments of mental illness such as anxiety, depression or PTSD or can be even effective in addiction treatment. 

Meditation definitely shows us that everything has the ability to change and nothing is fixed – we just have to open our minds to it. 

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