If you thought that you’d be stuck with mental habits such as worrying, getting overly stressed or being forgetful for life, then I’ve got good news for you. Recent studies have shown that we can and are changing our brains continually. Here’s what you need to know.
Research has found that a with a daily practice of as little as 27 minutes a day, meditation can change the brain structure in 8 weeks. How exactly? One of the most exciting scientific discoveries to emerge in recent years is the notion of neuroplasticity. This concept explores the ability of the brain to continually adapt and form new neural pathways according to our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. What’s more, many new studies on how meditation affects the brain have shown that we can harness this neuroplasticity to make us calmer, happier and more focussed.
With these research findings and the notion of neuroplasticity in mind, here are 4 incredible ways meditation can reshape your brain (and life):
1. Meditation keeps your brain young
As we age, our brains start to lose grey matter – and up until recently it was thought that this was simply an inevitable consequence of ageing. However, UCLA recently published a study showing that long-term meditators had significantly more grey matter throughout their brains than non-meditators of the same age. More research is needed, but with dementia being the second biggest killer in Australia the implications of this finding could be huge.
RELATED: A Beginner’s Guide To Meditation
2. Meditation can decrease anxiety, depression & pain
While it has been known for some time that the amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for fear, stress and anxiety) can enlarge and become more reactive after trauma and long-term stress, a recent study by Harvard University and the Massachusetts General-Hospital has been the first to show that it can work the other way too – that meditation can actually shrink the amygdala, making us less prone to stress, worry and anxiety and more emotionally resilient.
One of the main mental habits cultivated in a regular meditation practice is the developing of “witness consciousness” the ability to observe passing thoughts, worries and emotions without getting “hooked into them” and reacting with stress and anxiety. Brain scans on anxiety sufferers have shown that regular meditation trained their brains to simply witness their negative thoughts without producing a full-blown anxiety response.
Another study done by the John Hopkins University Hospital, found that regular meditation was equally as effective at managing depression as antidepressant medication.
3. Meditation improves memory, focus and problem solving
Most of us know what it is like to have a “monkey mind” that flits from thought to thought without being able to focus on one thing in particular and to forget things easily. Excitingly, brain scans in several studies have also shown that meditation increased grey matter in 3 key areas of the brain:
- The Anterior Cingulate Cortex or ACC which helps you to stay focussed and mentally flexible
- The Prefrontal Cortex which helps with planning, problem-solving and emotional regulation
- The hippocampus, which is related to learning and memory and can be extremely susceptible to trauma and long-term stress.
4. Meditation stops you from thinking ME, ME, ME all the time
This finding is significant for a number of reasons, besides simply helping practitioners to be less selfish.
Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and yogic philosophy, as well as inspiring modern teachers such as Eckhart Tolle have taught that our egoic self or thoughts of “I, me and mine” are at the root of our mental suffering.
Interestingly, science is showing some concrete evidence to back this up. The Medial Prefrontal Cortex, also known as the “Me Centre” in the brain, is related to how we process information about ourselves and is also involved with daydreaming and mind wandering. The thing is, it is also tightly connected to the fear centres in the brain, meaning an overactive “Me Centre” can get us stuck in repetitive mental thought loops, causing us to focus on our mistakes, become overly negative and focussed on ourselves and to view the world as a threatening place.
Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard, touted by several scientists as the happiest man alive, explains that “it’s not the moral ground, it’s simply that me, me, me all day long is very stuffy. And it’s quite miserable.”
Studies have confirmed that mindfulness meditation can weaken this tight link between the “Me Centre” and the fear centres in the brain, helping practitioners to become more empathetic, more able to live in the moment and more attuned to their senses and the world around them – which results in increased feelings of happiness and relaxation.
It won’t happen overnight
It is important to note that while changes in the brain can be measured after just a few weeks of meditating for around 20 to 30 minutes a day, for long-term effects, meditation needs to become a regular habit for life. In the same way that we have to consistently exercise to keep our body fit and healthy, we need to consistently exercise our brain to keep our mind fit and healthy.
Have you got a question for me about meditation? As away via the comment section below – I can’t wait to hear from you.
P.S. If you would like to learn a basic meditation technique as well as find out how to integrate a regular meditation practice into your daily life (and actually stick to it) read my beginner’s guide to meditation and join my free online meditation training.