Research on the effects of meditation on the brain and central nervous system has taken off in the last 40 years, often involving collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists and meditators. I first heard about this in the early 1970’s, when I was looking for any tiny clues that could help me recover from massive and global brain damage. I read that deep meditators have synchronized electrical activity across their brains, so that left and right hemispheric brain waves take on the same patterns. I knew about rhythm entrainment, in physics, where the pendulums of grandfather clocks placed against the same wall, all take on the same swing. I hoped that it could help my brain, which had poor communication between different areas, including memory, sensory, emotional, and cognitive functions. I started meditating as much as I could.
More recent research with experienced meditators and brain imaging studies has shown these areas to be activated:
- Anterior cingulate cortex. Is located just behind the frontal lobes. It helps regulate some autonomic functions such as blood pressure and heart rate, and has both emotional and cognitive roles. It is involved with being able to stay rational, anticipate rewards, make decisions, control impulses and have empathy for others.
- Medial prefrontal cortex. It processes what relates to you. It is self-referential, about your perspective, experiences and identity.
- Lateral prefrontal cortex. Modulates emotional responses, allows you to view things with more detachment and balance.
- Insula monitors bodily sensations, awareness of movement, processes your awareness of “gut feelings”. Helps you know what is safe or unsafe. Also empathy.
- Amygdala. The fear response center. It sets off alarms for unsafe situations, alerts us for fight or flight. There is a decrease in amygdala activity with meditation, which helps people keep reactions under control.
- Hippocampus. Suggests an increased ability to control attention and focused awareness.
- Additional research with people with memory loss who participated in an 8 week meditation program showed increased blood flow in the superior frontal, and superior parietal cortices.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to have benefits beyond the brain: decreased cortisol/decreased stress, improved immune function, better sleep, overcoming bad habits, and even decrease in mental health disorders.
Can you imagine having improvements in all these areas and functions? Meditation takes setting aside some time every day on a regular basis to show the most benefit. You will find yourself better able to cope with stressful situations, have more emotional balance, compassion, empathy, feel more calm, able to reason, make good decisions.
It’s never too late to start!