Research on the effects of meditation on the brain has taken off in the last 40 years. Neuroscientists, psychologists and meditators are all collaborating to make the benefits clear. For example, the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has enrolled over 20,000 people in their Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programs. These benefit both the body and the brain. (See more about Mind-Body Research and Massage here.)
I first heard about meditation benefits in the early 1970’s. Since I had been meditating in some fashion since I was seven years old, it was not new to me. However, in the 1970’s I was looking for clues to recover from my own brain damage. I read that deep meditators have synchronized electrical activity across their brains. This allows the left and right hemispheres to harmonize. In physics, I knew that rhythm entrainment is where the pendulums of grandfather clocks all take on the same swing when they are placed against a wall. In the same way, I hoped that meditation could help my brain entrain to itself to heal. So, I started meditating as much as I could. And I gradually noticed improvements in memory, emotional, and cognitive functions.
Meditation research, brain areas
More recent research with experienced meditators and brain imaging studies has shown these areas to be activated:
- Anterior cingulate cortex. Located just behind the frontal lobes, it helps regulate some functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. It does a balancing act, with both emotional and cognitive roles. It is also 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 a distinct sense of self in relation to others. Rather than “getting lost in the crowd”, it allows you to know who you are in social situations, your singular uniqueness. Thus, it is about your personal perspective, experiences and identity.
- Lateral prefrontal cortex. Modulates emotional responses. This allows you to view things with more detachment and balance.
- Insula monitors bodily sensations, awareness of movement. It is where you process awareness of “gut feelings”. Thus, it helps you know what is safe or unsafe. It also is a center for empathy.
- Amygdala, a.k.a, the fear response center. We need it. It sets off alarms for unsafe situations. It also alerts us for fight or flight. But it is overactive for PTSD. Fortunately, there is a decrease in amygdala activity with meditation, which helps keep reactions under control.
- Hippocampus. It governs learning and memory and stress response. Meditation suggests an increase in control of attention and focused awareness.
- Superior frontal, and superior parietal cortex showed increased blood flow. This was from an 8 week meditation program for people with memory loss.
- Mirror neurons are located in various regions. They are essential for learning, especially for children and language development. They also allow us to experience other people’s thoughts, emotions and actions as if they were our own. Thus they are fundamental for empathy. Meditation increases empathy, equanimity and social and emotional balance–for adults as well as children. However, it is not certain if meditation benefits mirror neurons directly.
Beyond the brain–meditation effects on daily life
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? You need to set aside some time every day on a regular basis to show the most benefit. Your meditation practice will help you in so many ways. You will certainly find it easier to cope with stressful situations and have more emotional balance. It can change your life as you grow in compassion and empathy. Even your work and family life improve as you feel more calm, are better able to reason, and make good decisions. It’s never too late to start!
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1. Mindfulness Meditation Linked with Positive Brain Changes (Huffington Post)
2. Meditation/Mindfulness training may Decrease stress and depression (National Institutes of Health)
3. Complementary treatment for mental health disorders (National Institutes of Health)
4. Mindfulness Meditation: How It Works In The Brain (Huffington Post)
5. This is Your Brain on Meditation. (Psychology Today)
6. Overcome bad habits, Tips to Resist Temptations. (Psychology Today)