Meditation is a powerful tool that comes with a number of health benefits. It’s the practice of thinking deeply or focusing one’s mind for a period of time with the goal of obtaining feelings of relaxation and inner peace.
While meditation is an ancient practice that has been around for centuries, scientists are just beginning to study its effects on the human body.
One realm of research concentrates on how meditation impacts the brain. Studies show that meditation has a variety of neurological benefits, from changes in brain volume to decreasing activity in parts of the brain involved with stress.
Below are four ways that meditation has been shown to change the brain:
1. Meditation Changes Structures in the Brain
Some studies suggest practicing mindfulness meditation can actually change the structures of the brain. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research that was conducted by a team of researchers at Harvard University used brain scans to determine that eight weeks of a mindfulness training program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increased the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory and plays an important role in emotion regulation.
While scientists are still working to understand the effects of volume increases or decreases of the hippocampus, it is generally believed that increases correlate to improved emotional regulation, while decreases are a risk factor for negative emotions, like stress. Additionally, several mental health disorders, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are associated with decreased volume and density of the hippocampus.
The study also found decreases in the volume of the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with experiencing emotions like fear, stress, and anxiety. What’s more, the observed brain changes matched the participants’ self-reporting of their levels of stress, meaning meditation not only altered structures in the brain, but how those practicing it actually felt.
A follow up study by the same researchers published in February 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience also found that changes in the brain following meditation corresponded to improvements in participants’ perceived level of stress.
2. Meditation and Stress Regulation
A small study published in July 2016 in the journal Biological Psychiatry used brain scans to analyze the effects of meditation on the brain and people’s health.
For the study, researchers recruited 35 unemployed adults who were seeking employment and were under a considerable amount of stress. The participants were put into two groups for a three-day intervention: one that was taught a formal program of mindfulness meditation and one that was taught a sort of “fake” meditation program focusing on distracting oneself from worries, such as with chatter or jokes.
At the end of the intervention, participants underwent brain scans and found that those who had participated in the meditation training showed more expressive activity in the areas of the brain related to resting state.
At a follow up four months later, those who participated in the meditation group also had lower levels of a marker in their blood tied to unhealthy inflammation, a physical condition closely related to stress.
3. How Meditation Can Help Improve Focus and Concentration
In today’s busy world with its many distractions, everyone has trouble keeping focus from time to time. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists say there’s reason to believe that meditating can help with that.
A study published in March 2013 in the journal Psychological Science suggests that mindfulness meditation can decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance. The researchers found that a two-week mindfulness meditation course helped participants’ focus and memory while completing the GRE. The training led to improved scores and reduced the occurrence of distracted thoughts.
Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found similar results. Researchers compared the brains of experience meditators to those of people new to the practice and paid particular attention to the default mode network (DMN), or the part of the brain that is active when the person is not focused on the outside world. Essentially, it’s responsible for the wandering thoughts that appear when you’re sitting still or about to go to sleep.
The researchers found that in experienced meditators, the DMN was relatively deactivated while the participants were practicing various forms of meditation, which translates to fewer distracted thoughts than the novice meditators.
4. Meditation and Protecting the Aging Brain
Preliminary research also suggests that meditation may help protect the brain against aging. Research published in the journal NeuroImage by a team from UCLA suggested that people who meditate have less age-related atrophy in the brain’s white matter.
A follow-up study published in January 2015 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that meditation also appears to help preserve the brain’s gray matter, the tissue that contains neurons and is connected by the white matter.
For the study, the same researchers compared the brains of 50 people who had meditated regularly over the course of 20 years with the brains of those who didn’t. Individuals in both groups showed a loss of gray brain matter as they aged, but for those who meditated, it declined less.
The researchers cautioned that the study cannot draw a cause and effect relationship between meditation and preserving gray matter in the brain. Still, they say it is promising, and call for more research to further explore the practice’s potential protective benefits on the aging brain.