Meditation Sculpts the Brain in Significant Ways

The human brain is ever evolving and develops late into life.

Scientists have previously viewed the brain as being hardwired in its development with maximum cognitive function reached in the early thirties. Yet recent research has revealed the brain’s natural ability for neuroplasticity, or the capacity to rewrite and create new neural circuits at any age. [1]

Meditation serves as one such method for stimulating new synaptic connections in the brain. By practicing meditation, people can improve the strength and functioning of their brain while also changing its functionality.

The neural circuitry of the human brain is sculpted only when focused attention is paid toward a stimulus. All types of stimulation can grow new brain circuits, but, without focused attention, the neurons fail to form lasting connections.

It takes presence of mind to focus the brain on desired inputs so that neuronal circuitry becomes fully activated. In this manner, meditation serves as a practice that requires intense attention and can build strong synaptic connections while also growing new brain cells.

In November 2005, a study published in the journal NeuroReport followed twenty participants from average walks of life in meditation research. [2] Participants were trained extensively in Buddhist insight meditation and practiced forty minutes a day.

The study found that all twenty of the participants showed increased gray matter resulting from the practice. These conclusions show that average, non-religious persons can receive incredible neuronal benefits similar to those found in long practicing Buddhist monks. Researchers further suggested that the benefits of meditation may include slowing down the age-related thinning of the brain’s frontal cortex.

Meditation also alters the brain wave patterns of people and can thus change how the brain functions.

The transcendent meditation states of Buddhist monks can be translated into the scientific language as high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony. Researchers at the University of Washington pinpoint the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the place where brain activity associated with meditation occurs with specific intensity.

Studies performed at the University show that meditative behaviors work to increase gamma activity in the prefrontal cortex. In one such study, Buddhist monks showed major spikes in gamma waves while novice meditators only showed modest ones.

The intense level of gamma activity in the monks has been associated with higher mental activity and heightened awareness. Researchers concluded that meditation not only affects short-term brain activity but can also create permanent changes. This finding was validated as Buddhist monks showed a considerably higher level of gamma-wave activity than the control group even prior to meditating.

So meditation, as a spiritual practice, can bring significant changes and measurable growth to the brain.

And to maximize such cognitive function, it seems essential that meditation be practiced with repetition and intention. Yet, as science is beginning to understand, even a brief investment of mindfulness can have profound effects.

A study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition found that a brief interval of mindfulness meditation mitigates the attention and mental energy costs of suppressing emotions, or “self-control.” Furthermore, mindfulness training was shown to stabilize or secure self-control for future use. [3]

That’s emotional health, but what about the physical? While there are a number of studies that show meditation improves the immune system, the so-called “energy medicine” practices like qi gong and healing touch therapies that use visualization to actually treat “dis-ease” are more controversial.

In their review of over 66 clinical studies published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, a team of authors found that, although biofield therapies demand further investigation, there is “strong evidence” that such therapies markedly reduce intense pain in patients. In other words, painkillers without side effects. [4]

But meditation is less about building a stronger body or brain than it is about overall health—a subtle distinction but one that matters. We published an article on meditation and human auras that expands this view quite nicely. For another example, research published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences shows that a basic mindfulness practice preserves cognition and prevents dementia by reducing oxidative stress and other neurodegenerative trends. [5]

Yet we see this imbalance in our society today: it’s hard for Westerners to meditate because they can’t stop their overactive, overdeveloped brains from thinking. In fact, findings show that an overactive brain is linked to a number of mood and behavioral disorders, including schizophrenia [6], depression [7], and autism [8].

The good news is that with the guidance of someone who’s experienced at teaching meditation, virtually anyone can learn. Like most things in life, it’s about finding the right teacher (not all are created equal) who offers the particular style of meditation that speaks to you personally. I teach meditation and have seen very pronounced results for my students.

Something else to consider is combining mindfulness practices and exercise (both are shown to positively affect the plasticity of brain and body) you would have a synergistic effect. This is why we created Mindful Strength to be honest.

For example, researchers in Europe compared a group of inactive elderly women with more active counterparts who practiced dancing, strength training, or meditation. All three activities—the first two physical, the latter meditative—gave the practitioners significantly better health and mood than the sedentary participants [Source 9]. Imagine the quality-of-life benefits of combining the two kinds of activity into one.

SOURCES

1. Dispenza, Joe. Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind. Dearfield, FL: Health Communications, 2007.

2. Lazar SW, et al (2005 November 28) Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16(17):1893-1897.