“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
There are a raft of articles that talk about the calming effects of meditation. Meditation helps relieve our levels of anxiety and depression and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being. What is starting to come to light through medical research across the globe, is the impact on the structures of the brain. The practice of mindfulness meditation appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from reductions in fear and stress levels, through changes in the amount of grey matter up top, to reduced activity in the “monkey mind” centers of the brain, and even enhanced connectivity between brain regions.
So what are some of the effects of mindfulness?
Fear is reduced
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. The pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. In effect, fear and stress is reduced.
Amounts of grey matter up top
A study from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain – although older meditators still had some volume loss – compared to younger meditators. So the longer you practice mindfulness meditation, the better the impact on the amount of grey matter.
The “monkey mind”
Another study carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-oriented thoughts, what people call the “monkey mind.” Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to turn down the volume of this mind activity. Several studies have shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the default mode network, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it. I have noticed this myself through my practice. I am much more able to turn away from the rumblings of my mind and focus on a specific thought.
Having problems concentrating isn’t just a kid thing – it affects millions of grown-ups as well. One of the central benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory. Since the strong focus of attention on your breath or and an idea, is one of the central aims of mindfulness meditation, it’s not so surprising that it should help people’s cognitive skills on the job as well. I can not say with certainty that the mindfulness practice has made me more attentive at work, though I certainly feel as if I am.
Now you might be thinking, that using mindfulness meditation to change the brain takes years to have an impact. Wrong. World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson is one of the leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, on the brain. He is the Founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, with Sharon Begley, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.“The structure of the brain can change in 1.5 hours of practice,” said Richard Davidson.
This is a short article that covers a very wide rangning set of studies. For further articles that you might find of interest, please go to:
Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain – Harvard Business Review:
“Train Your Brain” Webinar Audio Recording Featuring Richie Davidson and Dan Harris, hosted by Mindful.org
To listen to Richard Davidson talk about the benefits of Mindfulness, go to:
What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?
As always, I leave you with a quote….
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” ― Dr. Seuss