How Meditation Changes Your Brain

Posted on January 25, 2017

There are a lot of reasons why people think meditation doesn’t work.

It’s too simple, or I’m not doing it right. How can sitting quietly for ten minutes and trying to focus only on your breath help you get more things done in the day? It doesn’t work on me, or I can’t keep my mind still for that long. I’m just not the kind of person who meditates; that’s for people with a lot of time on their hands. I simply can’t spare the extra time during my day to focus, only on myself. Not surprisingly, these same people may be the ones most likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and insomnia because of the imbalance in their lives. Too much of their energy is focused on outward, result-oriented activity; too little attention is paid to the health of their mind.

Meditation is like exercise for your brain.

It stimulates the region of your brain that enables you to complete complex tasks, while simultaneously developing other regions that govern your ability to empathize with others. By eliminating distractions and training your brain to focus on a single action, breathing, you improve your attention span and deepen your sense of self-awareness. For so long, meditation’s claim that you can improve your life by just sitting in stillness has been easily ignored by skeptics. But recent studies have shown that the change claimed to be possible through meditation can actually be measured scientifically, and the results are astounding.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has been doing her post-doc research on the measurable effects of meditation on the brain, and her findings indicate that meditation not only reduces stress, but it actually changes your brain chemistry. In her first study, Lazar looked at long term meditators and compared their brains to those of a control group. The comparison showed that those people who had practiced yoga and meditation for many years had an increased amount of grey matter in the auditory and sensory cortex.

This might not seem that surprising, considering that practicing mindfulness through yoga and meditation is focused on paying attention to your breathing, your surroundings and the present moment – it would seem to follow that the parts of your brain dedicated to experiencing sights and sounds would improve.

What was surprising, however, was that the brains of the long-term meditators also had more grey matter in their front cortex, the part of the brain associated with working memory and executive decision-making. Many studies have shown that our cortex shrinks as we age, but remarkably, in this one region of the brain, the long-term meditators had the same amount of grey matter as someone half their age.

Lazar designed a study that would take people who had never meditated before and put half the group through an eight-week mindfulness program for reducing stress and anxiety, while keeping the other half as a control, and measuring the results between their brains after the program had completed. The study revealed that the mindfulness program increased the volume of four major regions of the brain, correlating to substantial changes in the essential components of our personality and experience of the world. Regions that control learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion were all positively affected by meditation, while the amygdala, the area of the brain that regulates our “fight or flight” reaction and is responsible for our perception of fear, anxiety and stress, was reduced.

The data showed that in only eight-weeks, by practicing for up to 40 minutes a day and taking a weekly mindfulness class, you can enact meaningful, physiological change in your brain. While 40 minutes might seem like a lot, there is evidence to suggest that you may not need to devote that much time each day to create the change Lazar saw in her subjects. Many of them did not practice for 40 minutes a day, though the average was somewhere around 27 minutes. Lazar suggests that there is anecdotal evidence pointing to as little as ten minutes a day having similar effects.

Whether you remain a skeptic towards the potential benefits of meditation, or engage in some form of daily practice, it is important to remember that mindfulness is an exercise; the more you practice, the more results you will see. The process is simple, but the results can be life-changing, all it takes is patience. “If you’re going to try it,” says Lazar, “it’s best to find a good teacher. It’s simple, but it’s also complex.” Your journey into self-discovery and self-improvement through meditation is one that will last the rest of your life.

– Laura Lindlief