While meditation is an ancient practice that has been around for a long time, recent studies have begun to link meditation to a variety of neurological benefits. These benefits show that mindful meditation can change the grey matter in the brain, reduce stress, and even function as a pain reliever.
What Happens To Our Brains As We Age?
As we age, our human brain deteriorates and our personal "computer processors" decline. The brain gradually shrinks in volume, blood flow slows, and nerve cells lose connections with other nerve cells. These age-related changes in the grey area of our brains affect our cognitive function (1). To combat the process of diminishing grey matter, people seek remedies to preserve their mental sharpness. Practices that are commonly used to increase cognitive skills are:
Remain Socially Active
Diet and Fitness
Creativity and Games
These remedies that people use to maintain a sharp mind are very much in line with a living a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle. However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, only 8% of US adults engage in a regular meditation practice as compared to the roughly 24% of people who get the recommended amount of weekly exercise (2). Considering that both of these activities are part of maintaining healthy cognition, why is a regular meditation practice practiced less than exercise?
According to Philip Goldberg, an acclaimed author, public speaker, and meditation teacher, the real problem is that people, especially in Western Culture, have not come to see the value of meditation. Goldberg states,"Americans are pragmatic, bottom-line people. But we are also outwardly driven, deluded by the idea that fulfillment comes from what we do rather than what we are inside" (3). With the numerous studies and information coming to the forefront about the benefits of meditation and grey matter, will it be enough of a motivator to change perception and raise the rate of mindful meditation practitioners?
The Science Behind How Meditation Changes Your Brain
The common assumption is that once we reach adulthood, our brains continue to learn and develop, but physically stop changing. However, we are now finding out that is not the case. Studies are revealing that meditation can physically alter your neurobiology and that our brains are networks we can continue to grow as a result of this training.
Meditation To Increase Grey Matter In The Brain
In 2009 a study was conducted that measured the brains of people who actively meditated for 10-90 minutes a day against a group of people who did not. The researchers found larger brain volumes and increased grey matter in the brains of those who meditated. These significantly larger measurements were due to the brain being closely linked to emotions. Lead author of the study, Eileen Luders explained that "these might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators' the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way" (4). While the study discovered the link between improved emotions and meditation, less was known about the relationship between meditation and brain structure until Sara Lazar's later research.
According to Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice. Her eight-week study found that meditating can physically alter your brain. The study identified differences in brain volume and documented a thickening in four regions of the brain (5). While mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practices have been used to produce positive effects on the psychological well-being, the impact on the physical brain had primarily been unknown - until now. This research is one of the first pieces of evidence that meditation can also alter the physical structure of our minds.
Meditation for Stress Reduction
While research links meditation to an increase in grey matter, another study proves that meditation will affect our stress-related health outcomes. According to this study, after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain's amygdala (the "fight or flight" center), showed significant signs of shrinkage. While the increase of grey matter is desirable for improved neural connections, the shrinkage of the amygdala creates room for additional areas of the brain to thicken. Regions that can thicken without the amygdala taking up space are areas that improve brain functions such as concentration and attention (6).
Meditation for Pain Relief
Meditation has also been linked as a viable option for pain relief. Research suggests that a single ten-minute mindfulness meditation session can improve pain tolerance, pain threshold, and decrease anxiety towards pain. Senior researcher for the study, Dr. Osama Tashani, explains: "While further research is needed to explore this in a more clinical setting on chronic pain patients, these results do show that a brief mindfulness meditation intervention can be of benefit in pain relief" (7). The results from using meditation to ease pain could be an effective non-medicinal alternative therapy for pain management.
Long-Term Meditation Practitioners
People recognize the importance of meditation but have difficulties implementing it into their daily routines. From the lack of knowledge on how to properly meditate to the lack of time, a variety of excuses hamper their efforts. Meditation can increase grey matter in the brain and have long-term positive effects on health and wellness. The increase in scientific research between meditation and the brain will help bridge the gap for many people who want to embrace meditation as a holistic antidote for today's hectic lifestyle. After all, just 10 minutes of meditation a day will have a significant effect on your brain.