Meditation – What Does It Do To Our Brain?
Many people are very skeptical about meditation and often decide that it isn’t for them, when in truth the likelihood is they don’t know very much about it.
What is meditation?
This is a question that most people don’t really know the answer to. Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains their mind to enter a different mode of consciousness or simply to quiet their mind down. There are many ways to meditate, however there are a couple of practices which have been heavily backed up by scientific research. These are focused attention or mindful meditation, which is where you direct all of your attention to one particular thing – like your breathing, or an object outside of you. The goal of this kind of meditation is to train your mind to focus only on one thing at a time and constantly bring your attention back to that focal point when your mind wanders.
Another type of meditation which is often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. In this meditation practice you train yourself to pay attention to everything that is happening around you, but without any emotional reaction.
What Happens In The Brain During Meditation?
This is really fascinating. By using technology such MRI scans, scientists have established a more thorough understanding of what exactly happens in our brain when we meditate.
Our brain slows down when processing information. The beta waves which indicate that we are processing information, decreases even after a short 20 minute meditation session if you have never tried it before.
Below is an explanation of what happens in each part of the brain when we are in a meditative state.
This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.
This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.
The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling a proportion of sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.
As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.
What effect does meditation have?
We now know exactly what happens in our brain during exercise. But in what ways does it affect us in the long run? It is actually very similar to how exercise affects us.
Improved focus is one of the long term lasting effects that comes with regular meditation.
“Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.”
The more you meditate the less anxiety you will have, this is because meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways.
Medial prefrontal cortex, a part of our brain which concentrates on our experiences, also referred to as Me Center. The neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain are strongly connected to the medial prefrontal cortex.
This is why when you experience a scary or an upsetting situation your brain triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center which leaves you feeling scared, anxious and under attack.
Meditation weakens this neural connection. Meaning that we no longer react as strongly to sensations that once might have made us anxious and scared. As this connection is weakened we simultaneously strengthen the connection between our Assessment Center, the part of the brain which is responsible for reasoning and rational thinking as well as our bodily sensation and fear centers. Consequently we can deal with uncomfortable situations much more rationally.
“For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.”
Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands conducted studies on both focused-attention and open-monitoring meditation. They discovered that people who practiced focused-attention meditation didn’t show any increased levels of creativity, however those who did monitoring meditation performed better on creative tasks set by the scientists.
Become More Compassionate
“Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.”
Part of this response comes from the Amygdala- the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. “During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.”
Another scientific study conducted in 2008 revealed that those who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain that is linked to empathy.
Increased productivity and memory
A researched at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center, Catherine Kerr discovered that people who regularly practice mindful meditation were able to ignore distractions and increase their productivity much quicker than those who do not meditate.
Kerr also said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”
A study in 2012 which used people that meditated and those who didn’t. They were given a stressful multitasking test and those who practised meditation reported less stress than those who didn’t.
More Gray Matter
Meditation increases gray matter which can lead to more positive emotions, increased focus and longer lasting emotional stability.
Meditation has also been shown to reduce the decline of our cognitive function due to aging.
Try a meditation app called Headspace. It was invented by a former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe.
Andy guides you through 10 minutes of meditation for 10 days which is a great starting point for any beginner.
Another great information filled source about simple meditation techniques is a blog called zenhabits.
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