Meditation's Impact: Brain, Body Benefits

how meditation changes the brain and body new york times

Meditation has been shown to have a wide range of benefits for the brain and body, from reducing stress and anxiety to improving focus and memory. But how does it work, and what changes does it make to our brains?

Meditation is a practice that has been around for centuries, and it involves training the mind to focus and redirect thoughts. The goal and type of meditation vary from person to person. Some meditate to reduce stress, while others use it to improve concentration and memory.

Research has shown that meditation can lead to measurable changes in the brain, including increased gray matter density in regions associated with memory, empathy, and stress. It also reduces activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. These changes in the brain lead to improvements in psychological well-being, with meditators reporting feeling less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

Meditation has also been found to improve physical health, with studies showing it can lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation in the body.

While the benefits of meditation are extensive, it is not a cure-all. It requires consistent practice and dedication to experience the positive changes in the brain and body.

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Meditation can help preserve the ageing brain

Meditation has been shown to have a positive impact on the brain, and this effect is particularly notable when it comes to ageing. Research has found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. While older meditators experienced some loss of grey matter volume compared to younger meditators, it was not as significant as that of the non-meditators.

The brain is a plastic organ that responds to activities, and meditation is no exception. By repeatedly engaging in meditation, the neural connections involved in the practice are strengthened, leading to the development of associated regions of the brain. This is supported by studies that have found increases in grey matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal regions of the brain, as well as increases in anterior insula and cortical thickness. These changes have been linked to improved learning, cognition, memory, attention, and self-awareness.

Meditation has also been found to positively impact the brain's pre-frontal cortex, which manages higher-order brain functions such as increased awareness, concentration, and decision-making. In fact, experienced meditators in their 40s and 50s have been found to have similar amounts of grey matter as individuals in their 20s and 30s, indicating that meditation may help maintain brain health as we age.

The practice of meditation has been shown to thicken the pre-frontal cortex, which results in stronger higher-order functions and weaker lower-order brain activities. This suggests that meditation allows individuals to train their brains and improve their cognitive abilities.

Additionally, meditation has been linked to a reduction in anxiety and depression, which are often associated with ageing. By calming the sympathetic nervous system, meditation can help reduce stress and improve emotional regulation.

While the benefits of meditation are clear, it is important to note that they are not immediate. Consistent and long-term practice is required to experience the full effects of meditation on the brain.

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It reduces activity in the brain's me centre

How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body: It Reduces Activity in the Brain's "Me" Centre

Meditation has been shown to have a measurable impact on the brain's "me" centre, also known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the region of the brain connected to anxiety, stress, fear, and other emotional responses. By reducing activity in this area, meditation can help to alleviate negative emotions and improve overall well-being.

A study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2016 provides strong evidence for these effects. The study recruited 35 unemployed and stressed individuals, and divided them into two groups. One group was taught formal mindfulness meditation, while the other group engaged in a sham mindfulness practice focused on relaxation and distraction from worries. After three days, both groups reported feeling refreshed and better equipped to handle stress. However, brain scans revealed significant differences between the two groups.

The group that underwent mindfulness meditation exhibited increased activity and communication between brain regions associated with stress-related reactions, focus, and calm. This indicated a heightened ability to process and regulate stress. Moreover, four months later, this group showed lower levels of a blood marker associated with unhealthy inflammation, even though few participants were still meditating regularly.

These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation has a direct impact on the brain's ability to manage stress and its associated physical effects on the body. The reduction in activity in the amygdala, or the "me" centre, plays a crucial role in this process, helping to decrease anxiety and stress responses.

Another study, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in 2011, provides further support. It found that participants who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks experienced a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala. This structural change in the brain was accompanied by a decrease in stress and anxiety.

The effects of meditation on the amygdala highlight its potential as a tool for improving mental and physical health. By reducing activity in the brain's "me" centre, meditation can lead to a range of benefits, including improved stress management, reduced inflammation, and enhanced overall well-being. While the optimal "dose" of meditation remains to be determined, these studies provide valuable insights into the power of mindfulness practices to bring about positive changes in the brain and body.

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It can rival antidepressants for depression and anxiety

Meditation: A Rival to Antidepressants?

Meditation has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health, and its benefits are increasingly being recognised by the scientific community. Research has demonstrated that it can be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety, and may even rival the effectiveness of antidepressants.

The Benefits of Meditation

Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and can change the brain's structure and functions. It has measurable effects on the brain's grey matter, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus.

Meditation vs Antidepressants

A review study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation may rival antidepressants in easing the symptoms of depression. The study, led by Johns Hopkins' Madhav Goyal, reviewed almost 18,000 earlier studies and analysed 47 randomised clinical trials, with over 3,500 participants.

The effect size of meditation on depression was found to be moderate, at 0.3. Notably, this is the same average effect size of antidepressant medication. Meditation has also been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, and can be practised alongside other treatments.

Meditation helps to train the brain to achieve sustained focus and return to that focus when negative thoughts or emotions intrude. It can change the way the brain responds to stress and anxiety, which are major triggers of depression.

Meditation has been found to change certain brain regions linked to depression, such as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the amygdala. The mPFC, often called the "me centre", is where individuals process information about themselves, such as worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. The amygdala, or "fear centre", is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear or perceived danger.

Research has found that meditation helps break the connection between these two brain regions, allowing individuals to better ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety.

Meditation has been shown to be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety, and its benefits may rival those of antidepressants. It can help to change the way the brain responds to stress and anxiety, and protect the brain regions involved in memory and learning. While more research is needed to fully understand the effects of meditation, it is a safe and accessible practice that can be easily incorporated into daily life.

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It may lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain

How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body: Volume Changes in Key Areas of the Brain

Meditation has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health and well-being. Research has found that it can also lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain.

In 2011, a study by Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practice led to increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. The study also found decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. These changes matched the participants' self-reported stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain structurally but also influences our subjective perception and feelings.

A follow-up study by Lazar's team further supported these findings. They observed that after meditation training, changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal were associated with improvements in how participants felt, reflecting an increase in their psychological well-being.

The brain is a highly adaptable organ that responds to our activities and experiences. When we repeatedly engage in a specific activity, we strengthen the neural connections involved, which leads to the development of associated brain regions. This process, known as neuroplasticity, allows us to create and improve connections between neurons and alter the density of gray matter.

Meditation practices, such as mindfulness meditation, have been found to lead to increases in gray matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal regions of the brain. These increases in gray matter contribute to enhanced learning, cognition, and memory, resulting in improved retention of information and more mindful behaviour.

Additionally, meditation has been shown to increase cortical thickness and volume in the anterior insula, which is associated with cognitive function, attention, and self-awareness. These structural changes in the brain may contribute to the reported benefits of meditation, including improved focus, memory, and overall psychological well-being.

While the research on the effects of meditation is ongoing, these initial findings suggest that meditation practices can lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain, potentially contributing to the reported improvements in mental health and well-being.

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It improves concentration and attention

Meditation has been proven to improve concentration and attention in several ways.

Firstly, it helps to strengthen neural connections and can change the configuration of these networks. This means that with regular practice, you can cultivate a more resilient neurobiology that promotes healthy, sustained focus.

Secondly, meditation has been shown to improve attention and concentration, and decrease mind-wandering. A 2013 study found that a 2-week training course in mindfulness meditation improved attention and concentration and decreased mind-wandering. Participants reported improved memory and feeling less distracted.

Thirdly, meditation has been shown to improve focus and memory. A small study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that after 3 days of mindfulness meditation training, researchers observed more activity in the areas of the brain related to the resting state.

Finally, meditation has been shown to preserve the aging brain. A 2015 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that meditation might preserve the brain's gray matter, which controls how fast you process information. This would stall or even reverse the usual cognitive declines that come with aging.

Frequently asked questions

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to have many benefits, including reduced stress and risk for various diseases, improved well-being, and a rewired brain.

Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on a specific thing, often the breath, and bringing your attention to that anchor. It can be practised anywhere and at any time.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to change the structure of the brain, including increasing grey matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal regions of the brain, and decreasing brain cell volume in the amygdala.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce emotional reactivity, stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also help to improve sleep and boost mood.

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