The Ways Meditation Can Alter the Brain

Meditation-and-brain research has been underway for a number of years now with new findings coming out almost every week to demonstrate the new effects of meditation. Or, rather, any ancient gain that has just been verified with fMRI or EEG. Practice tends to have a wide range of neurological benefits – from improvements in the amount of gray matter to decreased activation in the “me” brain centers to increased connectivity between brain regions.

Below are some of the most promising research that have come out in the past few years that prove that meditation actually can create measurable improvements in our most critical organ. Skeptics, of course, would wonder what good are any brain improvements if the psychological results are not seen at the same time? Luckily, there is strong support for those too, with research suggesting that meditation helps to alleviate our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, Boost focus, concentration and general psychological well-being.

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Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain

Last week a UCLA study showed that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators when they were older. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had a greater percentage of gray matter in the brain—though older meditators also had some volume reduction relative to younger meditators, it was not as pronounced as non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” The author of the research Florian Kurth said. “Instead what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Meditation Decreases Activation in the “Me Center” Brain Section

One of the most interesting work in the last few years, carried out at Yale University, reported that mindfulness meditation decreases activation in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” DMN is on or involved when we’re not thinking about something in particular, when our brains are simply wandering around. Since mind-wandering is commonly synonymous with being less content, it is ruminating. Worrying about the past and the future, it’s the intention for many people to turn it down. Several experiments have found that meditation, owing to its relaxing influence on the DMN, tends to do exactly that. And even though the mind starts to drift, because of the new associations that create, meditators are best off snapping right out of it.

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The Effects of Meditation Competes With Antidepressants for Anxiety, Depression

Last year, a research report looked at the association between mindfulness therapy and its potential to relieve effects of stress, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his colleagues observed that the meditation impact size was moderate at 0.3. If this sounds poor, bear in mind that the antidepressant effect size is also 0.3, which makes the meditation effect sound pretty good. After all, meditation is an active method of brain conditioning. “A lot of people have the idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not the truth. Meditation is an intensive training of the mind to increase consciousness, and various meditation programs address this in different ways.” Meditation is not a silver bullet for depression, since there is no cure, but it is one of the strategies that can better relieve symptoms.

Meditation Can Lead to Changes in the Volume of Brain Main Areas

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation could potentially alter the shape of the brain: eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) improved cortical thickness in the hippocampus that regulates learning and memory, and in some areas of the brain that play a role in the control of emotions and self-referential thinking. There was also a reduction in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for terror, anxiety, and tension – and these improvements were compatible with participants’ self-reporting of their stress levels, suggesting that meditation not only changes the brain, but also changes our subjective experience and emotions. In reality, a follow-up analysis conducted by Lazar’s team showed that after meditation preparation, Changes in brain regions related to mood and excitement were also linked to changes in how participants reported they felt—i.e., their psychological well-being. So for someone who claims the triggered blobs in the brain do not actually signify something, our subjective perception – increased mood and well-being – may also appear to be changed by meditation as well.

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Just a Few Days of Exercise Increases Focus and Attention

Concentrating issues is not just a child thing – it affects millions of adults as well, with or without an ADD diagnosis. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, one of the main advantages of meditation is that it increases attention and concentration: a recent research showed that just a few weeks of meditation preparation helped people’s awareness and memory in the GRE verbal reasoning portion. In fact, the improvement in score was equal to 16 percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at. As a clear concentration of attention (on an object, thought, or activity) is one of the core goals of meditation, it is not shocking that meditation can also help people’s cognitive skills at work – but it’s good to see research prove it. And everybody can use a little more support with standardized exams.

Meditation Decreases Anxiety—Social Anxiety

A lot of people are beginning to meditate on the effects of minimizing stress, and there is a lot of strong data to support this rationale. There is a whole new sub-genre of meditation, described earlier, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness (now accessible around the country), which aims to relieve the stress of an individual, both physically and mentally. Studies have demonstrated their benefit in minimizing anxiety even years after the original 8-week course. Analysis has also shown that mindfulness therapy, unlike breathing alone, can alleviate anxiety – and that these changes appear to be transmitted across brain regions connected with these self-referential (“me-centered”) thinking. Mindfulness therapy has also been found to benefit those with social anxiety disorders: The Stanford University team found that MBSR induced improvements in the brain areas involved in focus, as well as recovery from symptoms of social anxiety.

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Meditation Can Help with Addiction

Growing numbers of studies have shown that, considering its effects on brain self-control areas, meditation can be very helpful in helping people rebound from different forms of addiction. One research, for example, pitted mindfulness meditation against the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking (FFS) initiative, and found that participants who studied mindfulness were many times more likely to have stopped smoking at the completion of training and 17 weeks of follow-up than those with traditional therapy. This may be because meditation lets people “decouple” the state of craving from smoking, so that one doesn’t necessarily have to contribute to the other, but rather you truly feel and ride the “wave” of craving before it disappears. Other study has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) can be effective in the treatment of other forms of addiction.

Quick Meditation Breaks Will Benefit Kids at School

For brain formation, meditation has as much or maybe perhaps more potential than it has for adults. Teachers and scholars have become particularly involved in introducing meditation and yoga to school children who are coping with the normal stressors within the school, and also with extra stress and trauma outside the school. Any schools are beginning to incorporate meditation on their everyday schedules and with good effect: one district in San Francisco has initiated a twice-daily meditation program in some of its high-risk schools – And the suspensions reduced, and the GPAs and enrollment improved. Studies have verified the cognitive and emotional effects of meditation for schoolchildren, but further analysis is likely to be needed before it is more commonly embraced.

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