Anatomy 101: The Brain Science Behind Meditation
Sitting on your cushion can help your brain stay sharp as you age, and improve memory and focus. Here’s how.
ANN SWANSON5 HOURS AGO
Humans possess a unique superpower among those in the animal kingdom: the ability to evaluate the past and plan for the future. Unfortunately, this evolutionary advancement comes at an emotional cost—regret and worry, both often the result of not being in the moment. Research shows that the more time you spend mind-wandering (not being present) the less happy you’re likely to be. In fact, humans devote a whopping 47 percent of their waking hours to mentally time-traveling.
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Fortunately, you can develop present-moment awareness through meditation. Recent advances in two key scientific areas of study—neuroimaging and neurochemistry—allow us to see the measurable brain changes that result from meditation and lead to improved cognition and mood.
Modern neuroimaging technology like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines provide more detailed brain scans than ever before. Researchers can now see the long-term effects of practicing meditation on neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to form new connections, especially in response to learning or experiencing something new.
Just as exercise develops your muscles, practicing presence through meditation strengthens neuroplasticity. Meditation, asana, and pranayama stimulate your brain, which helps prevent atrophy and functional decline. Positive effects have been seen in long-time meditators who practice for as little as 10 minutes a day.
Unstimulated vs Stimulated Brain
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Meditation seems to slow the natural reduction of brain tissue that comes with aging and improve cognition and memory. Harvard researcher Sara Lazar found that 40- to 50-year-old meditators have key brain structures similar to those of non-meditators in their 20s: Gray matter increases in the prefrontal cortex, improving focus, problem-solving, and emotion regulation. The limbic system—a complex network of the brain responsible for behavior, emotions, and survival instincts—is also altered with meditation. The hippocampus thickens, which boosts working memory and keeps you anchored in the present. Meanwhile, activity decreases in the amygdala, lessening the brain’s fear response.
The anatomy of meditation.
Your brain is capable of naturally creating key chemicals that pharmaceutical companies synthesize in a lab. For example, serotonin helps regulate mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, memory, and more. Some antidepressants work by increasing the usable levels of serotonin in your brain. Meditation has also been shown to increase serotonin levels, without the side effects, making it a promising complementary therapy. Measurable changes of neurochemistry from meditation include:
Brain alpha wave activity increased: Alpha waves are associated with relaxation.
GABA increased: Gamma-aminobutyric acid counteracts anxiety and stress symptoms, leading to more relaxation.
Serotonin increased: Serotonin helps regulate mood. Low levels of usable serotonin are associated with depression.
BDNF increased: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a protein responsible for neuron health and neuroplasticity. Yoga can boost levels of BDNF, which may help people with chronic pain or depression.
Dopamine regulated: Dopamine acts as your body’s reward system, and dysfunction is associated with addiction. Research suggests that meditation results in improved self-regulation.
Cortisol reduced: Cortisol is a stress hormone. When your baseline increases and levels are too high for too long, it can lead to inflammation and weight gain.
Norepinephrine reduced: A decrease in norepinephrine, or adrenaline, means fewer stress hormones in your system.
See also Study Shows How Yoga May Age-Proof the Brain
Change Your Mind
Meditation literally changes your neural configurations. Research suggests that meditation can be effective as an adjunct therapy for depression, anxiety, trauma, chronic pain, cancer, heart disease, and more. Better yet, it can help prevent many issues before they start. Meditation cultivates the neurobiology of optimal health and resilience. There’s a reason this practice has stood the test of time and why there’s been an exponential growth of research on meditation in the past few decades: It works.
See also 7 Amazing Holistic Brain Benefits of Meditation
Images excerpted from Science of Yoga by Ann Swanson, reprinted by permission of DK, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 Ann Swanson and Dorling Kindersley Limited.
About the author
Ann Swanson has a Master of Science in Yoga Therapy and is the author of Science of Yoga. She helps people safely manage stress and chronic pain, including back pain, arthritis, and more. For free video practices and resources related to this article, go to scienceof.yoga.