Brain Benefits of Meditation and How to Start MeditatingMar 26, 2019
Above: Sophia Ruan Gushée at Inscape NYC.
Below: article by Lily Kamp and Sophia Ruan Gushée
There are countless benefits of meditation. Since March is my brain meditation detox month, the article below focuses on how meditation can help brain health. The article introduces meditation and how meditation can help some people with depression, anxiety, stress, addiction, ADD, empathy, and compassion. The article ends with tips on how to start meditating.
What is Meditation?
The concept of meditation can be daunting. But the goal of meditation is simply to observe the patterns and habits of your mind—without judgement—so that you can cultivate your self-awareness. Think of it as simply noticing your mind's thoughts with curiosity. It'll cultivate kindness and compassion to yourself. That's not so intimidating, right?
Meditation can contribute to many physical benefits as well as a broader perspective that helps many people experience more calm, presence, and happiness. Inevitably, you start to see your judgment and darkness as opportunities to grow. And then your judgment can lessen.
In a 2003 NY Times article titled "Is Buddhism Good for Your Health?," University of Wisconsin neuroscience lab director Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. was quoted for explaining:
In Buddhist tradition, the word ‘meditation’ is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing.
Many assume that meditation is just sitting and doing nothing for minutes at a time, or that it is an over-idealized process by which people proudly claim to be bettering themselves. Meditation, however, is an exercise in training the brain.
Just as there are many ways to exercise and train the body, there are many approaches—including meditation techniques—to help train the mind. Examples of the various types of meditation techniques include guided meditations, visual meditations, sound meditations, mantra-based meditations, breath-awareness meditations, and active meditations.(8)
When practiced consistently and correctly, meditation can improve several different aspects of our brain health.
How Does Meditation Affect Brain Health?
Meditation may increase the longevity of our brain health and reduce the effects of aging on the brain. Brain-related effects of aging, include Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other changes involving memory loss or slowed cognition.
According to a 2015 UCLA study(1), long-term meditators had more grey matter—which dictates muscle control and sensory perception—throughout their brains as they aged, compared to non-meditators.
In a Psychology Today article describing the brain “on meditation,” Dr. Rebecca Gladding cites that meditation can further reshape the brain, increasing cordial thickness in the hippocampus, which dictates memory and learning capacity.(2) Learning and exercising memory are key ways to prevent and slow deteriorating brain health. Meditation boosts both.
Sleep is another powerful tool to support brain health. And meditation has been found to improve sleep for some people.
One study at Harvard Medical School found that practicing mindfulness (for a mere two hours a week for six weeks) improved the sleep of subjects significantly more than sleep education classes did. Practicing mindfulness meditation may help negate some people's tendency to lay in bed contemplating personal problems and future tasks.(3)
There are also potential short-term benefits of meditation on the nervous system, such as(10):
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved blood circulation
- Lower heart rate
- Less perspiration
- Slower respiratory rate
- Less anxiety
- Lower blood cortisol levels
- More feelings of well-being
- Less stress
- Deeper relaxation
Meditation and ADD
One of the most heavily-discussed benefits of meditation is that it can increase one's ability to focus.
A well-balanced meditation practice increases one's ability to pay attention to, and to remember, details. Meditation can decrease your mind's tendency to get distracted. Studies show that meditation can sharpen focus equally, if not more so, in some students with ADD.(11)
A 2013 study found that a simple 2-week mindfulness course helped increase students’ GRE scores by approximately 16 percentile points! (4)
Meditation and Emotional Health
Mediation is shown to reduce general anxiety and depression. It does this by decreasing cell volume in the amygdala—the brain’s operating system for fear, anxiety, and stress—and by decreasing activity relating to the Default Mode Network (DMN) in the medial prefrontal cortex, commonly known as the “Me Center.” The Me Center is responsible for us taking things personally and unnecessarily relating things to ourselves; i.e., it's very active in an ego-centric perspective and interpretation.
Dr. Gladding explains that when the Me Center processes the bulk of our information, we are quicker to panic:
Whenever you feel anxious, scared, or have a sensation in your body [like itching or mild discomfort], you are far more likely to assume that there is a problem related to you or your safety.
A 2011 Yale School of Medicine study found that regular meditation can significantly lessen DMN activity. This can significantly reduce negative or self-centered thoughts in frequent meditators(5).
Meditation provides more company/exposure/confrontation with thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable, provocative, or upsetting; and this experience allows frequent meditators to view these potential triggers from a perspective that is much more macro-level, grounded, calm, and rational. This decreases automatic reactivity, including negative assumptions.
A 2016 study at Harvard titled "When science meets mindfulness: Researchers study how it seems to change the brain in depressed patients" found that certain meditations may help those with depression, especially those who have a harder time detaching themselves from perceived fear(6). Another 2016 Harvard study titled "Regular meditation more beneficial than vacation" finds that regular meditation provides more long-term health benefits (including relieving stress) than vacationing does!(9)
Meditation and Capacity for Empathy
Because meditation quiets the unhelpful parts of our Me Center, it allows deeper connection between the helpful aspects of our Me Center. This can result in greater empathy. When practiced consistently, meditation can reshape our neural receptors so that we become more compassionate towards others.
Meditation Can Help Overcome Addiction
While there is less evidence backing this, some studies suggest meditation may help those recovering from addiction.
A 2013 study titled "Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction" (7) compared the American Lung Association’s “Freedom From Smoking” program with mindfulness training. It found that mindfulness was more effective—especially in the long term—than the traditional program in helping people quit. The study explains that this is likely because the altered neural connections create more detachment between the desire to smoke and the act of smoking. This may allow the frequent meditator to get more comfortable with the discomfort of cravings—rather than impulsively reacting to it.
Can Meditation Help You?
It’s important to note that every one of these studies emphasizes that meditation is not a cure-all for everyone. While it transforms some people, it does nothing for others. And then there's a wide range of effects in between those two outcomes.
If you have tried meditation once or twice and weren't sure if it was “working” or that it was for you, I encourage you to try different forms of meditation and different teachers. There are many different kinds of meditations and teachers, and the chemistry of whether one can resonate with you also depends on where you are in your life.
While meditation is not for everyone, all these studies and every single article by a professional note that daily practice is key. Or at least every other day.
Meditation is like physical exercise: results come from consistent practice, and are magnified when it is done with thoughtful effort and the will to participate.
4 Tips to Start Meditating
Below are four tips to help you find a meditation practice that resonates with you.
- Consider what type of meditation you want to try. Remember that there are various types of meditation. Examples include guided meditations, visual meditations, sound meditations, mantra-based meditations, breath-awareness meditations, and active meditations. Check out the different types through an online search, including on YouTube.
- Try meditation with a professional. Some people prefer individual guidance. If you're this person, then consider finding a meditation teacher that can practice with you in-person. One unique benefit from working with a professional is that you can discuss your specific concerns and also be held accountable to the commitment you make to someone else (like a regular meditation time and duration). However, finding the right professional for you is important to a helpful experience.
- Meditation classes. Meditation classes (in person and online) can also be helpful, and certainly cheaper. Some people prefer a social setting, and are more motivated by a group's energy and routine.
- Meditation apps. Meditation apps make meditating even more convenient. Popular ones include Headspace, Inscape, and CBT.
My Most Successful Ways to Meditate
Below are the achievable ways that I meditate, which may help you too.
- Active meditation. Approach an activity with the intention of using that activity as a time to notice your thoughts, feelings, body's sensations, and whatever else you notice. For me, my favorite opportunities for active meditation is when I'm cooking, watering and pruning the plants, showering, getting dressed, cleaning, and tidying.
- Bedtime meditation. Once I decide to turn off the lights to go to sleep, I try to notice what comes up. When it feels right, I then notice all the parts of my body that hold tension, starting with the top of my head, then forehead eyes, cheeks, jaw, ... and I don't usually stay awake past the jaw! As I notice the tension, I try to let it go.
- Morning meditation. Upon waking, if I have the opportunity to take a minute or two to set an intention for how I would like breakfast to go, then that helps set me in a much better mood for the inevitable chaos of getting three kids fed and out the door on time for school.
Brain Detox Meditation
For more articles on March's brain meditation detox, please click here.
(1) Luders, Eileen and Nicolas Cherbuin and Florian Kurth. "Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy," Front. Psychol., 21 January 2015
(2) Gladding M.D., Rebecca. "This Is Your Brain on Meditation: The science explaining why you should meditate every day." Psychology Today, Posted May 22, 2013
(3) Corliss, Julie. "Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep."Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School. POSTED FEBRUARY 18, 2015, 3:38 PM , UPDATED MARCH 18, 2019, 12:38 PM
(4) Baird, Benjamin and Michael S. Franklin, Michael D. Mrazek, Dawa Tarchin Phillips, and Jonathan W. Schooler. “Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering.” Psychological Sciences. 2013.
(5) Brewer, Judson A. and Patrick D. Worhunsky, Jeremy R. Gray, Yi-Yuan Tang, Jochen Weber, and Hedy Kober. "Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) December 13, 2011 108 (50) 20254-20259
(6) Powell, Alvin. "When science meets mindfulness: Researchers study how it seems to change the brain in depressed patients." The Harvard Gazette. 2016.
(7) Tang, Yi-Yuan and Rongxiang Tang, and Michael I. Posner. "Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction." PNAS August 20, 2013.
(8) Thorp, Tris. "Start Here! 5 Meditation Styles for Beginners." The Chopra Center. No date available.
(9) Tello MD, Monique. "Regular meditation more beneficial than vacation" Harvard Health Publishing. POSTED OCTOBER 27, 2016.
(10) No author noted. "MEDITATION 101: TECHNIQUES, BENEFITS, AND A BEGINNER’S HOW-TO." Published on Gaiam website.
(11) No author or date published. "Building Focus Naturally: How Meditation Helps ADHD & ADD." Published on Ecoinstitute website: https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/how-meditation-helps-with-adhd-and-add/
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