We’ve all seen commercials about exercising and strengthening our brains with “brain games” and puzzles. What if it was easier than that? What if all that was necessary was 15 minutes of daily meditation? For centuries, yogis and spiritual leaders have known that the brain (and the entire body) responds to meditation.
Medical researchers at Harvard University have proven that meditation changes your brain. A recent study has shown that a simple but regular meditation practice may be enough to encourage not only a sense of general physical and mental relaxation, but improved mental and psychological function.
In a recent study led by Harvard neuroscientists and medical researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, participants spent eight weeks practicing a regular, daily meditation routine. Duration varied, but they averaged 27 minutes per day and ranged from those with no experience to meditation experts. The participants were asked to practice a particular type of meditation called mindfulness meditation (Vipasssana) in which the subject focuses on the immediate moment, often on the experience of breathing and noticing the physical sensations within the body during the meditation period. The goal is to learn to focus on the here-and-now and to notice ‘what is’ without attaching to any one experience of the senses, including thoughts about the past and the future, and other distractions.
The Harvard study used MRI scans of the brain to show that meditation does in fact change the brain’s structure. The scans showed significant changes in the brains of meditation participants when compared to non-meditating control group participants. MRIs of the meditators showed changes to the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. Each of these areas controls specific functions related to cognitive and psychological health. The changes seen on MRIs of meditation participants include:
These are considered “primal” regions of our brain, responsible for instinctual reactions to our surroundings and situations, and they tend to work together to elicit many emotional and physical responses in the brain and body.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that meditation not only changes the structure of these three areas of the brain, but that meditation also changes how the three areas interact with one another. It is believed that as the amygdala becomes less dense its control weakens, and that the cerebral cortex and hippocampus take on a greater role causing improved concentration or focus and less stress.
In addition to brain changes, those who follow a regular routine of meditation no matter the type, also tend to have reduced levels of several inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein, interleukin 6, and cortisol. These are all stress-response markers and go up when the body or brain are exposed to stress. In turn they crank up the body’s inflammatory response. In some patients, elevated levels of these three components result in chronic illness, inability to lose weight, decreased brain function, as well as stress and damage to the organs of the body such as the heart and liver. In fact, the vast majority of patients with chronic illness have an overactive mid-brain caused in part by excessive interleukin 6 attaching to receptors, increasing the stress response and starting a vicious cycle leading to continued or worsening illness.
With regular mindfulness meditation, patients have been shown to reduce negative physical symptoms related to illness by as much as 35% and have reduced negative psychological symptoms by as much as 40%. While the amount of benefit varies, many patients in past studies and in the Harvard study have reported significantly reduced day-to-day stress, calmer response to conflict or bad news, improved sleep, fewer headaches, improved memory and greater focus. Some also have reported an improved ability to manage chronic illnesses.
Although the act of simply paying attention to one’s breathing and focusing on the here-and-now through mindfulness meditation may sound easy, some who try it on their own find it difficult to grasp and quit before they see any benefits. Most of us have been programmed by culture, work, family, and so on to look outside of ourselves for distraction, and it’s natural to focus on the future or the past. Learning mindfulness meditation takes practice and patience. Stick with it for several weeks and you will begin to notice that it becomes easier over time, however it never becomes easy or perfect. Finding a group to provide support through your experience will help you navigate your own process as you explore meditation and ensure you get tips that will lead to your own personal successful meditation practice.
One additional upside to any form of meditation is that, unlike medications that may have numerous side effects, meditation has no side effects. However, it is important to note that despite the results of the Harvard study and prior research studies, before taking up any changes to routine that may impact your health, you should seek out the advice of a healthcare practitioner.
To ensure that your meditative practice improves not only your health but your brain function, it helps to work with an experienced functional neurology practitioner. Different areas of the brain are responsible for different functions, sensations and emotions. One form of meditation may be better suited for you as a result. In addition, a functional neurologist can suggest ways that music, sounds, or silence can improve brain function. While nearly all forms of meditation offer some benefits, pairing an inappropriate form with inappropriate external stimuli may provide benefits to some areas of the body, but not to the brain.
When is the best time to start meditating? Winter just happens to be an ideal time to begin meditating as most of us naturally slow down and become more introspective. However, whenever you’re ready is the best time to start. Meditation is free and available to you now.