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5 Ways Meditation Changes Your Brain

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Meditation can cause positive effects on your brain. Anecdotal evidence on the topic has existed for centuries, but in the current era, neuroimaging technologies can help us measure the physiological correlates of various meditation practices.

There are many meditation traditions, but the umbrella term covers various practices with some essential things in common, such as the self-regulation of attention and emotion (Brandmeyer et. al, 2019). The brain can change over time, this is known as neuroplasticity. This re-wiring can occur out of necessity, such as bypassing an area affected by stroke, but it can also be an intentional, such as through practicing a new skill. Here are 5 of the key ways meditation has been shown to change people's brains:

  1. Less mind-wandering People who meditate regularly demonstrate less activity in the "default mode network" than those who don't. This network is activated when attention isn't focused, and is associated with mind-wandering and rumination (Garrison et al., 2015)

  2. Structural changes for a more interconnected brain In a matched study comparing 46 people with a meditation practice, and 46 without one, the meditators had thicker cortical areas including several in the frontal and temporal lobes. They also showed higher fractional anisotropy values, which are a microstructures correlated with strengthened connectivity. All told, the results suggest structural changes to both grey and white matter. (Kang et al., 2012)

  3. Enhanced attention & sensory processing Additional areas with greater thickness in meditators than controls are the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, which are regions associated with attention, planning, and sensory processing. (Fox et al., 2014)

  4. More empathy, less stress The stress hormone cortisol is found in large amounts for those who demonstrate high empathy, this has been measured in a lab setting through showing participants video of people in stressful situations. When given these same measures but instructed to generate compassion through meditation, cortisol levels were significantly reduced. (Cosley et al., 2010)

  5. Reverse brain-aging We lose some of our brain density as we age, this is known as "cortical thinning." One remarkable result of meditation is the slowing of this process in those cortical areas that are thickened though meditation. (Lazar et al., 2005)

In summary, practicing meditation can change both the structure and function of the brain. Some of the largest benefits are in plasticity, thickening of certain cortical areas, and improved focus with reduced stress.

Sources cited:

Brandmeyer, Tracy & Delorme, Arnaud & Wahbeh, Helane. (2019). The neuroscience of meditation: classification, phenomenology, correlates, and mechanisms. 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.020.

Cosley, B.J., McCoy, S.K., Saslow, L.R., et al., 2010. Is compassion for others stress buffer- ing? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 46, 816–823.

Fox, K.C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M.L., et al., 2014. Is meditation associated with altered brain

structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in med-

itation practitioners. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 43, 48–73.

Garrison, K.A., Zeffiro, T.A., Scheinost, D., Constable, R.T., Brewer, J.A., 2015. Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cogn. Affect. Behav. Neurosci. 15 (3), 712–720.

Kang, D.-H., Jo, H.J., Jung, W.H., et al., 2012. The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 8, 27–33.

Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., et al., 2005. Meditation experience is associated

with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16, 1893.

Raffone, A., Srinivasan, N. The exploration of meditation in the neuroscience of attention and consciousness. Cogn Process11, 1–7 (2010).

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