To someone who’s never done meditation before, it may seem like a complete waste of time. After all, what you see is just someone sitting quietly, practicing deep breathing or saying “om” for minutes at a time, doing nothing else.
In reality, meditation causes some profound changes in your brain.Because it was difficult to see the changes happening in our brains, it was impossible to prove meditation’s effects. That is, until a few years ago.
Thanks to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, we can now map out the brain and the activity that’s happening in it at any specific moment. As a result, scientists are now able to understand what meditation actually does to your brain. Interestingly, this led to the discovery that meditation not only affects how your brain behaves while you’re meditating, but that it also changes your brain’s structure over time.
Here are some of the things that meditation will do to your brain.
It Increases the Gray Matter in Your Brain
Our brains are primarily made of two types of tissues. They’re called white and gray matter. The reason they’re called as such is that they appear as these colors during brain scans.
In general, about 40% of your brain is gray matter, while around 60% consists of white matter. Both are vital for your brain to function properly. They work together to allow us to think, remember things and coordinate all our thoughts and movements.
That said, white and gray matter work very differently.
- White matter is like the highway structure of your brain. It consists of long nerve axons that allow different sections of your brain to send and receive signals to one another. This allows you to coordinate your thoughts and movements.
- Gray matter contains your brain cells, or what scientists would call neurons. While they’re called gray matter, they’re actually pink in color. And, turn gray when you die. That’s because while you’re alive, blood constantly flows through it.
More interestingly, research shows that meditation increases gray matter density in certain areas of your brain, including your brain’s frontal lobe and hippocampus. This is why people who meditate are more positive. It is also why meditation allows you to focus and concentrate better while being less susceptible to impulses or emotional instability even under stressful situations.
It Increases the Wrinkles in Your Brain
If you’ve seen any picture of the human brain, you’ve probably noticed that it has a lot of wrinkles and bumps. These are what are often called folds or gyrification, in scientific terms. While the folds in your brain’s cerebral cortex may not be visually appealing, they serve a very important function. That is, to hold brain tissue.
Thus, the more folds your brain has, the larger the surface area it covers. As a result, a more wrinkled brain contains more brain cells.
To explain, think of your brain’s surface area like a blanket. When the blanket is fully laid out on your bed, it takes up a large amount of space. But, you can fold the blanket so it takes up a much smaller amount of space. But, even when folded, the number of threads and the total surface area of the blanket doesn’t change. Because your skull is small, your brain needs to fit it in. To do so, it folds itself many times over. In reality, these folds are your brain tissue twisting and coiling themselves in order to fit in your skull.
Interestingly, higher intelligence animals like humans and dolphins have high levels of gyrification. In contrast animals like squirrels and frogs have very little gyrification in their brain’s cerebral cortex. It is for this reason that humans have higher IQ and EQ (Emotional Quotient) compared to other animals. The best part of it all is that a 2012 study from UCLA found that meditation increases the folds in your brain. As a result, doing meditation regularly allows your brain to process information faster. Additionally, it helps improve your memory and allows you to concentrate for longer periods of time.
Meditation Helps You Relax and Reduce Stress
One of the things you’ll quickly notice when you meditate is that it helps you relax and lower stress. That’s because meditation helps you transition from the noise and chaos of the hectic world into silence. When you meditate, you stop moving. In addition, your breathing slows, and your thoughts calm down. This allows you to experience restful alertness, which helps heal your mind and body. While you’re in this state, your heart rate slows down, your body uses oxygen more efficiently and inflammation also decreases.
In addition, being in deep rest also triggers your brain to release GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. These are what bring the inner calm and positive emotions upon you.
GABA is a neurotransmitter (your brain’s chemical messenger) that prevents nerve cells from getting over excited. In doing so, it helps reduce stress, fear, and anxiety. As a result, your mind calms down, eliminates racing thoughts and gets rid of any feelings of nervousness.
Happiness Hormones: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Oxytocin are collectively known as your happiness hormones. They’re called as such because they help reduce pain, make you feel more positive, motivate you and let you bond with others. In short, they’re the brain chemicals responsible for your happiness.
As a result, meditation not only lets you relax, it also makes you feel happier and have a better sense of well-being.
Meditation Helps Reduce Pain
Among the most interesting things that meditation can do is increase your pain tolerance. Thus, it helps provide pain relief from both physical and emotional pain. But how does it do this? To understand how this works, it’s important to understand how your body feels pain. When you get hurt, bumped or pricked, the body part that suffers the injury doesn’t actually feel pain. At least not yet. Instead, your body’s sensory receptors, like in your skin, for example, send a message to your brain via your spinal cord and brain stem. And, it is your brain that processes the pain signal that lets your body perceive the pain.
As such, your brain plays a huge role in how you experience pain. In a sense, you can say that it’s “mind over matter”.Meditation helps reduce the activity in the sections of the brain that signal pain. In addition, it does two things.It lets you relax and focus on something else other than the pain. Focusing on something else keeps your mind off of the pain. This is why when we’re in pain, it helps to bite on something or squeeze someone else’s hand. Similarly, when you’re distracted by work or watching TV, for example, you don’t notice the pain as much.
Meditation also lets you face and accept the pain. Emotional pain and fear are different kinds of pain. They’re pain from the unknown or things you’re afraid of. When this happens, our instinct is to run away from it. Meditation makes you confront it so you can address and control it. This takes away the pain from the fear or uncertainty.
It Improves Your Memory and Ability to Learn
One of the most valuable contributions of fMRI scans to the study of meditation is that it showed the physical effects of regular meditation on the brain. In 2011, a team of Harvard scientists observed that 8 weeks of mindful meditation was enough to change the brain’s structure. Specifically, it increased the thickness of the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of your brain that’s responsible for learning and memory, especially long-term memory. It also plays a role in regulating your emotions, self-awareness, empathy and spatial orientation.
As a result, practicing meditation regularly not only helps you learn and remember things, it also makes you more aware of yourself and everything around you. Finally, it helps you control your emotions even under duress.
In addition to meditation, many people also turn to yoga. In a holistic yoga program, you not only do the poses (asanas), but also incorporate breathing (Pranayama), and meditation. This them to experience all these benefits as well.
It Increases Empathy and Compassion
One of the intangible benefits of meditation is that it allows you to empathize with others and be more compassionate. That’s because it affects certain changes in your brain. In this case, the amygdala and the temporo parietal junction or TPJ. Your brain’s amygdala plays a big role in your emotions and behavior. More specifically, how we react to emotional stimuli. The most prominent of which is fear. It is what gives us a warning of impending danger or threat to us. It is also what makes you nervous and afraid of things even when they’re out of your control. Unlike other parts of the brain that increase in size from meditation, the amygdala actually shrinks in people who regularly meditate. As a result, it helps you control your emotional responses which reduces fear, anxiety and overall stress.
Meanwhile, meditation increases activation in your brain’s temporo parietal junction. The TPJ is associated with your sense of perspective, compassion, and empathy. Whenever you put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and “see things from their perspective”, your TPJ activation levels increase. This is in contrast to when you’re thinking only of yourself, or you’re focusing on “me”. With a stronger TPJ, you not only connect with people better, but you also become a better person.
About the Author
Emma Lymn is the editor of Health Grinder, a health and nutrition blog. She is passionate about helping others learn to eat healthy and lose weight. A proud mom of two kids and a very spoiled dog, she enjoys traveling and volunteering in her spare time.