Looking at it from the outside, meditation does just look like sitting still. But for those of us who practice it, we know that meditation has brought numerous benefits to our lives.
Sure, we’re not all peacefulness and light, but certainly work stress becomes more manageable, traffic jams don’t seem like the most daunting obstacle ever and it feels like we can focus more.
But is there any scientific basis to this?
Of course there is! In fact, meditation can quite literally change your brain (in a non-‘chilling-sci-fi’ way!). How?
Meditation actually increases grey matter in the brain (the best type of ‘going grey’ there is).
A team at Harvard carried out a study with subjects taking part in eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. MRIs showed an increase in cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory; there was also thickening in the posterior cingulate, which manages your mind-wandering inclinations.
The upshot of all this thickening is that the Harvard team concluded that meditation can have a positive impact on our ability to deal with difficulties and to focus. A different study published in 2016 demonstrated that even 3 days of meditation results in improved brain functioning.
The amazing part is that four months later, those participants who hadn’t mediated since those three days of the study still had retained some of the improved brain functioning.
Lower anxiety and stress
You already know that meditation makes you feel less panicky about life, but do you know why?
Strangely, it’s actually about weakening neural connections, which sounds slightly wrong – surely we should be strengthening our brains?
In this case, no. The neural connection that’s weakened is the one to your brain’s “Me Centre”, otherwise known as the “monkey mind”.
This is where your mind goes when it’s wandering and is the part that often first reacts to experiences; it means that an upsetting sensation can cause a powerful response in the “Me Centre”, making you feel under attack.
That’s when you start to panic. But a recent study showed that meditation calms down the “Me Centre” and enables you to look on things more rationally.
Meditation’s effects on the parietal cortical regions of the brain, which regulate negative beliefs also shows its positive impact on social anxiety. Being able to manage your own self-negativity makes you much better able to deal with others in social situations.
Memory and focus
It can feel like nowadays we’re assaulted by stimuli every day and it can make it difficult to focus. Whether at work or home, we can be easily distracted (think Dory from Finding Nemo).
Given that meditation is a practice of focus, it’s probably not a shocker that it helps our memory and focus. What is surprising is how much.
A 2013 study showed that after only two weeks of meditation practice, participants’ verbal reasoning score on the GRE was an average 16 percentile points higher.
It also showed that participants were considerably less affected by distracting thoughts. It seems that those who meditate have control over their alpha rhythm – the brain wave that screens out those everyday distractions – allowing them to remember things and integrate these facts into their existing knowledge.
Imagine how much more productive we’d be if we could screen out those outside… oh, I think I’ll have a cup of tea.
Slow brain aging
Stress can also cause shorter telomeres and shorter telomeres are not what you want as they’re associated with age-related diseases. And now, studies have shown that meditation can increase the length of telomeres or at least protect them from the damage of time.
A team at UCLA also observed that people who had been meditating for years had more grey matter throughout the entire brain (not just the specific regions we’ve already spoken about as being related to meditation).
Sure, they had lost a little, but nowhere near to the same extent as non-meditators.
So next time you have a spare five minutes, instead of checking Instagram, try a few minutes of meditation and feel your brain changing.
The yoganum family