Throughout history, it’s reported that people have been practicing meditation for longer than anticipated, and it has received increasing attention from East to West.
Today, more than a powerful tool to pursue conscious living and promote general well-being, the meditative practice using breathing techniques to foster relaxation has captured most attention from neuroscientists for its remarkable impacts on overall cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, and executive function, based on the sole belief that the brain is not hardwired once we reach adulthood, but constantly remains adaptive and open to alterations and adjustments when learning or developing new skills.
This discovery has led to further research emphasizing the benefits of meditation on the brain, implying that we can train and exercise our brain to mitigate the aftermath of aging that comes with increasing age.
What is the neuroscience behind meditation, and how can we proactively take control of our brain to keep it active and healthy with time? Let’s go over the neuroscience of meditation and explore the potential benefits of meditation for overall cognitive wellness and abilities.
What Does Neuroscience Have to Say About the Impact of Meditation on the Brain?
What Is Meditation?
The definition of meditation is relatively vague and can vastly vary in different cultures. In simple terms, meditation is a well-known technique that encourages body-mind integration and mental focus with the utilization of deep breathwork or a repetition of a word or phrase. For millennia, in different cultures all around the world, people have used meditation to exercise their brains, engage with their inner thoughts, and refocus their attention.
Many believe meditation was originally a cornerstone of spiritual development in many major world religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Despite the varying techniques, the orientation of meditation in each religious setting was all about tuning in mental awareness, cultivating calmness, and enhancing well-being.
Today, the primary purpose of meditation is based on better understanding one’s self and surroundings when enthusiastic meditators are accustomed to the centuries-old practice to harness a sense of relaxation, enhance overall wellness, and gain insight into the meaning of life. Meditation is simple, and anyone can practice it without workout gear or attires needed.
The meditative practice has also captured a great deal of attention from the public as effective stress management, with numerous studies praising meditation for its extensive abilities in warding off stress, relieving associated symptoms and discomfort, and resolving conflicts amid hectic lifestyles and schedules.
Meditation is divided into nine types of practice, with each affecting the meditator differently depending on their needs and preferences:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Spiritual meditation
- Movement meditation
- Focused meditation
- Transcendental meditation
- Mantra meditation
- Progressive relaxation
- Visualization meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
What Is Neuroscience?
Neuroscience was developed to obtain more knowledge about the human brain. It encompasses the exploration of the brain and the nervous systems, as well as all aspects of the brain’s activities, from formation, development, and structure to functions, malfunctions, and alterations.
To map out the brain network, neuroscientists utilize various methodologies to examine and investigate the brain’s overall behaviors and cognitions at a mechanistic level. The brain network, or neural circuits, is responsible for the brain’s diverse functionalities and processes all responses of the human body when activated. The neural network signals different brain regions to carry specific functions after the auditory and conversion of neural messages through the interconnected network of synapses.
Understanding the Brain
In addition to being a vital organ, the brain is an incredibly complex system as it houses approximately 80 to 100 trillion neurons despite only accounting for 2-3% of the body weight. These millions and millions of ever-growing brain cells stack and intertwine with others, creating a cell-to-cell communication network.
In light of advanced medicine and the more we learn about the brain and its trivial activities, a slew of evidence has confirmed that, unlike other body parts, the brain never stops developing. It means it continues to evolve and adapt to changes or alterations until death, with learning or practicing a new set of skills further proving the brain’s ongoing development into adulthood.
Every time we learn new skills, the brain regions accounting for particular activities form new neurons, connections, and patterns from repeated engagements. In other words, our brains become bigger when learning something new, like muscle training. Conversely, the brain is prone to shrinkage over time when we stop exercising our brain, accompanied by other factors like pollutants, substance abuse, and intrinsic aging.
This logically explains why the more adults age, the more they are encouraged to keep their brains active with brain-stimulating activities into their golden years, as it is reported that our brains shrink at faster rates than the rates of neuron production as soon as we turn 40, leading to rapid brain decline into the age of 50 and beyond.
However, maintaining mental sharpness should be a daily habit that starts as early as possible, regardless of age. There are many ways to promote brain health and protect it from the ultimate consequences of aging, such as getting up and moving, playing brain games, picking up new hobbies or habits, playing instruments, and learning new languages. And meditation is considered one of many activities that could help with brain health and development.
Meditation & the Brain: What Does Neuroscience Say?
Before the establishment of neuroscience and neurobiology, the mechanism behind the vital organ remained a lifelong mystery. Therefore, it was mostly, if not completely impossible, to learn more about the effects of meditation on the brain, even though many meditators have sworn by the impressive benefits of meditating on their overall health for decades.
In recent years, the benefits of meditation have intrigued neuroscientists, leading to the ongoing rollout of many research studies on the interplay between meditation and the brain. Following these studies producing tremendous outcomes in the last few years, it’s been shown that meditation can provide immeasurable benefits for the brain. What actually happens to the brain when we meditate?
Meditation Changes the Brain Volume
While studies on the extensive health benefits of meditation are still limited, a study conducted by Harvard University discovered that meditation does change the brain structure and how we subjectively feel. Specifically, participants practicing meditation for 8 weeks had increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus and decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala. This technically means that meditation can help to improve memory capacity and reduce stress and anxiety, accompanied by self-reports of participants reflecting on their stress levels after finishing the 8-week meditation program.
A study comparing the overall brain mass of meditators aged 40-50 and non-meditators aged 20-30 found that their cortical thickness was about the same. This indicates that long-term meditators can maintain their brain’s overall mass, and their brains are approximately 7 years younger than those who don’t meditate.
Meditation Quiets the Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a network of nerves that prepares the body to respond to stressful or traumatic situations. As a part of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, are responsible for activating the body’s survival instincts when dealing with threats.
When activated, the natural hormone adrenaline rushes in. It gives the body a sudden burst of energy, subsequently triggering complex pathways and prompting the body to react to a perceived endangering environment, whether to flee or fight back. When the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system switches off the adrenaline pump, allowing the body to rest and relax.
Although the dual coordination of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is integral to life, a persistent adrenaline rush can exhaust the body due to increased blood flow, breathing, perspiration, and heart rate. Through meditation, neuroscientists have found that meditative practice can help deactivate the overactive sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a perfect harmony between the two systems when the body is stressed.
Meditation Preserves the Aging Brain
Thanks to groundbreaking advances in healthcare and medical interventions, we have been able to prolong life expectancy by up to 10 years since 1970. Despite best efforts, we haven’t figured out the remedy to stop the brain from degrading with increasing age, as the brain is most vulnerable to mental and neurodegenerative illnesses over the years. Naturally, this paradoxical challenge has led health experts and neuroscientists to look into the benefits of meditation when it comes to preserving the brain from the inevitable aging process.
In addition to adjustments in lifestyle and enhanced nutrient intakes, many health experts and scientists suggest mediation to be a simple and accessible remedy for warding off the effects of aging that cause the brain to degrade with increasing age. In a study conducted by UCLA, the brains of long-term meditators are better preserved than non-meditators as they age, reflecting increases in gray matter volume throughout the entire brain.
Meditation Reduces Stress and Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms
For many years, meditation has gained sustainable popularity for its ability to calm the brain and fight off stress and anxiety. But the mechanism behind stress reduction of meditation wasn’t debunked until recently when neuroscientists revealed that meditating could cause positive changes in the brain region that causes stress, the amygdala. It has been disclosed that a shrinking amygdala indicates lower stress levels, with many findings showing that the amygdala in meditators is smaller than in non-meditators.
Bottom Line: Meditation as Magical Cure
Research into the neuroscience behind meditation has yielded groundbreaking outcomes, offering more insights into the potential benefits of meditation on overall health enhancement. Although the studies are still limited, it unveils that by learning more about meditation and utilizing its principles in various aspects of health; we can enhance cognitive functions, promote well-being, and reduce stress levels.
Does it mean meditation is a more potent antidepressant than conventional stress-reduction medications? While it can’t be denied that meditation can provide many benefits for humans’ general wellness and well-being, it is unrealistic to expect complete avoidance of stress in our busy lifestyles.
It is important to clarify that meditation, though effective, should not be regarded as a quick fix for permanently shutting down the noise in our heads. Instead, it is one of many tools that can be employed to manage stress and alleviate depressive symptoms in conjunction with other stress-relieving techniques.
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Strickland JC. (2014). Guide to Research Techniques in Neuroscience. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education.
Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research.
Pagnoni, G., & Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging.
Ganguly A, Hulke SM, Bharshanakar R, Parashar R, Wakode S. (2020). Effect of meditation on autonomic function in healthy individuals: A longitudinal study. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care.
Luders A, Cherbuin N, Kurth F. (2015). Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Department of Neurology, School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA.
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