How Meditation Can Change the Brain

How Meditation Can Change the Brain

Meditation is an incredibly ancient practice, originating in Hindu and Buddhist traditions around 1500 BCE, yet its legacy is extremely prevalent today (A Brief History of Meditation, 2018). Meditation plays an integral role in the routines of people all across the world and takes on many different meanings to all that practice it. Thus, there is no single definition of meditation, but what all forms of it share is the goal of calming the mind. Some popular meditation techniques today involve increasing awareness of the breath and acknowledging feelings of tension in the body. The term meditation comes from the Latin word meditatum, meaning to “ponder, ” which is embodied in meditative practices that involve quietly observing thoughts and feelings rather than engaging in them. Meditation is a mindfulness practice that has stood the test of time — and for good reason. There are tons of testimonials and studies out there that demonstrate its ability to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Using brain-imaging techniques, scientists have peered into the brain and found that the positive effects of meditation on emotional well-being are also manifested physically in the brain. 

In one study, a group of individuals — all new to meditation — participated in an 8-week-long training program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MRI brain scans from before and after the intervention found improvements in the function of brain areas related to emotional regulation, memory, learning, and self-awareness. These improvements in functioning were reflected in an increase in the volume of those areas, which was not seen in the control group. The hippocampus was an area of particular interest to the researchers as it plays an important role in memory and emotion regulation. These findings surrounding the hippocampus may have real implications in mental health treatment. Evidence has shown that exposure to chronic stress and trauma can make the hippocampus smaller, depleting its ability to consolidate memories and regulate emotions (Hölzel et al., 2011). The hippocampus is also one of the few regions of the brain that can regenerate cells after they die. The use of antidepressants in depression and anxiety treatment has actually been linked to an increase in hippocampal volume as well. All of these findings suggest that non-medicated interventions like meditation may be just as effective at fighting stress and mood disorders as medication.

Another study on the effects of two different kinds of meditation programs focused on how the amygdala — a part of the brain that controls emotions like fear and anger — would respond to meditation. The amygdala tends to be overactive in individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This means that individuals with these disorders will react more greatly to negative and stressful events. Using an fMRI machine, participants’ brain function was measured during a non-meditative state to see if the program could have lasting effects outside of the mindfulness practice. The participants were presented with a series of images used to evoke emotional responses ranging from positive to negative and neutral. By the end of the meditative training, participants exhibited lower activity in the amygdala when viewing emotional images. This study suggests that meditation not only has immediate benefits but also alters the way our brains respond to stress in the long run.

These studies represent only a fraction of the growing body of promising research on the benefits of meditation. Therapy and psychiatric services are still very inaccessible to many folks due to a host of reasons like finances, mental health stigma, and proximity to resources. While it is unclear how long it will take to bridge that gap, meditation could be a really helpful tool for a lot of people. Guided meditation materials are a dime a dozen, be it in the form of books, classes, or youtube videos. At little to no cost, anyone can take advantage of this practice in the comfort of their own home, and virtually anywhere else.

References

Mindworks Meditation. (2018, July 7). A Brief History of Meditation. https://mindworks.org/blog/history-origins-of-meditation/

Adebayo, O. (2019). Woman Meditating in the Outdoors [Photograph]. Pexels. https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-meditating-in-the-outdoors-2908175/

Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W. W., Wallace, B. A., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

Sy Atezaz Saeed, Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10), 620–627. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0515/p620.html

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