Change Your Mind: Meditation Benefits for the Brain
In today’s hyper-connected, fast-paced environment, the challenge more than ever is to have the discipline to slow down. Modern-day technology also inundates your life with distractions that draw your focus outward. It’s possible to mask chronic stress and other unhealthy psychological states, but society has begun to recognize the need for a counter movement.
Taking a “brain break”—relearning how to slow down and go inward—has become increasingly popular. That may be due, in part, to recognized meditation benefits for the brain.
Meditating is a great way to ease the frantic state of mind many find themselves in. Once thought to be an enigmatic practice, meditation has gained traction in recent years. One study shows regular meditation by adults tripled from 2012–2017. The growing literature on the benefits of meditation is expansive and promising.
The practice of cultivating mindfulness through meditation can be achieved in many ways. Put simply, it’s being aware of where you place your conscious attention. What comes up may be pleasant or unpleasant. But as you practice this inward dive with nonjudgmental attention, you’ll be able to access an inner peace that already exists within you.
Anyone can start a mindful practice of meditation to find a new level of calm. It’s all about the discipline of sitting down and going inward.
Big Brain Benefits
Meditation benefits for the brain are abundant. Meditating strengthens neural connections and can literally change the configuration of these networks. With regular practice, you can cultivate a more resilient neurobiology that:
- Contributes to a greater sense of well-being
- Helps to maintain brain health as you age
- Aids in alleviating mental stress
- Promotes healthy, sustained focus
And with practice, meditation can also help you develop empathy and be more compassionate.
Sound amazing? Read on to reveal even more meditation benefits for the brain.
Mindfulness to Manage Your Mood and Well-Being
Like exercise for your body, meditation helps to condition your mind. Confronting and letting go of unwanted psychological states, like anxiety and fear, releases their hold and the associated conditioned response. Studies now prove control over your internal experience, once thought to be fixed, can be altered with the simple practice of mindfulness.
Though not a cure for chronic emotional and psychological stress disorders, meditation has many extraordinary benefits for mood and overall well-being. A few minutes of mindfulness and meditating can help hold off overwhelming emotion and guard against the powerful thought patterns that fund unproductive worries.
Here’s a small slice of the research backing mindfulness and meditation benefits for the brain:
- One randomized controlled study found mindfulness-based therapy over 56 weeks significantly reduced the period of time before relapse of episodes of low mood. It also helped with long and short-term healthy mood maintenance. Participants reported experiencing a better quality of life.
- Another study showed eight weeks of mindfulness-based therapy improved participant’s mental health scores. This lead to important conclusions, like relief of anxiety in the mind from meditation being tied to the regulation of self-referential thought processes. Anxiety is a cognitive state that occurs when you’re unable to control your emotional state due to perceived threats.
- After an eight-week mindfulness course, participant MRI scans showed a reduction in the brain’s fight or flight center associated with fear and emotion. The amygdala—a part of the brain that controls your body’s stress response during perceived danger—is a key biomarker of stress in your body.
Tune into Greater Attention and Focus
Everyone’s mind gets distracted. It could be putting off homework, losing track of your words mid-sentence, or thinking about work while your significant other tells you about their day. Humans developed selective focus as a coping mechanism for dangerous threats in the ancient past.
Today, there are fewer physical threats to worry about. Instead, people ruminate psychologically, letting worry and anxiety overtake the present with past emotional pain or future anxiety.
Your brain naturally, easily slides into boredom, so it may welcome distractions. A default-mode network of neurons is associated with mind wandering—also called the “monkey mind.” But scientists have found that abnormalities in this system of the brain can lead to anxiety, depression, attention disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meditation allows you to be in the present moment, a timeframe associated with feelings of happiness. It can increase your attention span and combat mind wandering and excessive self-referential thoughts. With over-activity, these unhealthy states of mind can lead to a state of unhappiness.
Mindfulness helps you focus and ignore the distractions around you. It also helps to hone your ability to notice more in your environment. This gives you access to the present moment with a fuller perspective of your experience. Managing your monkey mind through daily meditation is a simple and easy first line of defense for endless modern-day distractions.
Play the Long Game: Aging and Brain
Free to all, meditation is a fountain of youth for mental aging. The human brain naturally begins to deteriorate in your 20s. Maintaining a healthy brain can be supported with the powerful practice of meditation.
Meditation is shown to thicken the pre-frontal cortex. This brain center manages higher order brain function, like increased awareness, concentration, and decision making. Changes in the brain show, with meditation, higher-order functions become stronger, while lower-order brain activities decrease. In other words, you have the power to train your brain.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, found consistency with meditation is key. In her study, she discovered that experienced meditators 40-50 years old had the same amount of gray matter as an average 20-30-year-old. In this older group, the health of the frontal cortex was maintained.
Brain Structures and Neuroplasticity
Mindful meditation can create physical changes in the brain through neuroplasticity.
This increasingly popular concept refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and change continuously throughout your lifespan. Behavior and lifestyle are major influencers on the brain. So, your life makes your brain constantly create new neural connections. That’s because neurons (nerve cells) actively adjust to compensate to changes in your environment.
Brain cells go through a process of reorganization, dynamically adapting by creating new pathways inside the brain. How you think and feel changes these neural structures. By flexing the muscle of thoughtful attention, again and again, you effectively change the “physique,” or shape, of your brain. And it’s doesn’t take much time, either.
Studies have shown it only takes eight weeks to change the shape of your brain, including an increase of gray matter volume. Gray matter is found in your central nervous system, and makes up of most of your brain’s neuronal cell bodies. This type of tissue is particularly important in areas responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, emotion, memory, decision-making, and self-control.
Through neuroplasticity, you can create and improve the connections between neurons as you alter the density of gray matter. You can effectively change your brain in just a few minutes a day.
Seeing the Brain Through Meditation
The gray matter in your brain tells a lot about what happens as you sit down for brain training. The many meditation benefits for the brain triggered by daily practice are staggering. But what happens, exactly, to produce these exciting effects?
During the first few minutes of your meditation session, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the first area to light up. This part of the brain filters experiences through a self-referential lens. As you ease into a meditative state, your brain is still bouncing from thought to thought—the monkey mind active in the trees. Thoughts that surface can be exaggerated outcomes due to your lived experience.
When you’re able to rein in your attention, the lateral prefrontal cortex activates. Regardless of the method you use—a mantra or breath—this shift can help you override the “me” from moments earlier. Thoughts during this phase are more rational and balanced, helping you see a more neutral perspective. Now you’ve settled into the sweet spot of meditation.
Practice for several weeks (8 to 12) activates the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. In this state, empathy can develop, and compassion easily arises. This range of activation in the brain becomes stronger the longer you practice. The dedicated practice creates a gateway to a dynamic, gracious life.
Release Chemical Helpers with Mediation
Your brain naturally releases key neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that help regulate the balance of vital hormones. They influence systems throughout the mind and body.
Studies show practicing meditation can directly impact the level of these crucial neurotransmitters produced in the brain. Mindfulness can have a measurable impact on these brain chemicals:
- Serotonin—increases this “feel good” chemical to help regulate mood
- Cortisol—decreases this stress hormone
- DHEA—boosts levels of this longevity hormone
- GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)—improves the calming effect of this major inhibitory transmitter in your central nervous system (CNS)
- Endorphins—increases the “natural high” of this overall happiness neurotransmitter
- Growth Hormone—elevates levels of this youth-preserving chemical that naturally declines with age
- Melatonin—boosts this “sleep hormone” responsible for restful sleep and helps with mood regulation
Moving Towards Alpha
Your bustling brain is a continuous source of electrical activity. It makes sense. Neurons communicate with each other through electricity.
Brainwaves convey information through a rate of repetition—oscillations so powerful they can be detected. An electroencephalogram (EEG) machine measures five basic types of brainwaves, at different frequencies, slow to fast. Corresponding to Greek letters: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. As you might guess by now, meditation allows you to manipulate the frequency of your brainwaves.
Meet the 5 Main Types of Brain Frequencies
- Gamma brainwaves: The fastest measurable brainwaves detected by EEG. This quick, oscillating brainwave is associated with heightened mental activity including perception, learning, consciousness, and problem solving. They’re active when your brain is processing information from different regions simultaneously.
- Beta brainwaves: Detected during active, alert, and busy thinking. They are present at times of concentration, conversation, or when you focus on a task.
- Alpha brainwaves: Identifiable when the mind is in a calm, relaxed, yet alert state. They are present during creative activities, found right before you fall asleep, and increase during meditation.
- Theta brainwaves: Measured during deep meditation, day dreaming, or REM sleep. They can also be detected while performing automatic, repeated tasks that disengage the brain, like showering or washing dishes.
- Delta brainwaves: These slow brainwaves occur during deep, restorative sleep where you lose body awareness altogether.
Your brainwaves are just one aspect of the complex processes in the mind that produce your experience. And meditation can help you control them.
As you meditate and turn attention within yourself, alpha and theta waves increase. Producing alpha waves helps you tap into the voluntary onset of rest and relaxation. This wave comes over you when you’re not focusing with effort on anything in particular.
Dipping into alpha oscillation through meditation can also fuel your creativity. A 2015 study showed a surge in creativity induced by producing more alpha waves. Moving towards alpha waves isn’t a magic elixir, but it’s a promising start to accessing a calmer, more imaginative life experience.
Your Mindful Destination
For a beginning practitioner, developing mindfulness takes dedication. But as you deepen your craft through physical repetition and mind-body connection, you’ll experience the mediation benefits for the brain. Increased research on meditation presents proven benefits for well-being, enhanced memory and attention, a boost in serotonin, and the list keeps growing.
Training your brain to still fluctuations is easier than it sounds. If you haven’t tried it, meditation is simple. It requires no extra equipment, no previous training. Simply sit in a comfortable position, either in a chair on the floor, and begin to focus on your breath. When your attention strays, gently bring your thoughts back to your breath.
Countless methods exist to practice creating a healthy brain and body through meditation.
Try varying your technique by trying out vipassana, breathwork, transcendental meditation, chanting, focused attention, and moving meditation, to name a few. Each of these can be guided or silent.
Seek out the method that’s best for you. But just trying it on for size is the important part. Step off life’s crazy ride for a few minutes each day to go deeper into the mechanics of your own mind. With regular training, you’ll bring resilience to your mental state, better manage high levels of stress, and become more agile in the face of distressing thoughts, anxiety, and distraction.
Meditation, just like exercise, can transform your brain. As a more mindful individual, you’ll create a more whole, conscious experience with more meaningful connection. It’s within your power to change your brain—start today.