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And Breathe: Can Meditation Change Your Brain?

And Breathe: Can Meditation Change Your Brain?

Do you take time to truly be at one with yourself? Our day-to-day lives in 2020 are pretty much none stop and it is rare to get a moments peace. We have work responsibilities, personal endeavours and a continuous stream of social media delights to scroll through. An ancient practice is still seen as the gold standard of clearing the mind: meditation. Meditation involves removing oneself from current experiences and distractions to centre to stabilise the body and mind. Meditation can be achieved through breathe control, visualisation & stretch, and becoming an expert can take years to fully perfect. Those who practice mediation report an improved mental state, cognitive abilities and overall health. But does deep breathing and quiet actually alter your brain? Looking into the minds of those who meditate has begun to uncover the biological impact of mindfulness.

Your Mind on Meditation

When you meditate, you can feel like your brain is in a completely different state from how it is when you are running around trying to check off every job on your to do list. We can now take a sneak peak into the mind of someone who is mediating using brain scanning technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning to see if we can spot any differences in brain activity. If you place Buddhist monks practiced in mediation into an fMRI scanner while they are meditating, their brains are able to activate their ‘resting’ state (which we experience when day dreaming) alongside the brain’s more ‘active’ state (which we use when focusing on a task). It is thought the dual-activation of these two brain states gives the meditator the feeling of self-awareness while being very present in their environment.

Meditation may be thought to all be ‘in the mind’ but studies have shown mindfulness practice can improve the symptoms of debilitating conditions such as depression and anxiety – hinting the practice has a biological effect. Long-term affects of meditation have been shown to alter the structure of the brain across multiple studies. Comparing those who meditate to those who don’t as well as novice meditators in their initial practice period, the brain areas which are seen to be ‘different’ in the meditators are those related to position of the body (sensory cortex & insula), attention (frontopolar cortex), memory (hippocampus) and decision making (oribitofrontal cortex & anterior cingulate cortex). The alterations experienced by these regions is described by imaging as being either thicker or larger than the control groups; and some of these changes have been compared with the attributes meditators describe as improving through practice.

1. Attention

If you have ever tried to ’switch off’ through mediation, you will know just how difficult it is to pool all your attention into the present moment. Individuals who practice meditation routinely describe an enhanced ability to control their attention and several research studies have given these claims some solid foundations. In a lab setting, attention in humans can be measured using an Attention Network Test (ANT): a computer task picking up changes in your reaction time following a warning or cue. Some studies have revealed an increase in ‘alertness’ in individuals who practice mediation routinely, but not in people who are new to mediation (week-long training). Researchers has described an increase in activation of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) in the brains of those who often meditate. The ACC is a brain region which deals with internal conflict when making a decision by comparing past outcomes. This area has been shown to be more active in experienced meditators during mediation and when expecting a painful stimulus. Other ‘attention centres’ in the brain like the prefrontal cortex are also seen to be enhanced following mindfulness practice. Together this work suggests practicing meditation could increase activation of brain areas known to be important in controlling attention, but more work is needed to prove the exact impacts of these altered activations.

2 .Self-awareness

Day-to-day, we are using very self-absorbed in our own dilemmas and tasks. A reported outcome of mindful meditation is a detachment from your current state of mind, which is replaced by the ability to observe and reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Individuals who meditate have been shown to have more self-acceptance, a positive attitude towards themselves and higher self-esteem than non-meditators. In the brain, thinking of the ‘self’ is thought to be under the influence of the default mode network: a collection of brain areas activated in your resting state. In an imaging study, certain areas of this network showed reduced activity in meditators vs not; potentially reflecting reduced thinking of ’self’; as well as enhanced connections between some of these areas; interpreted as meditators having more control over the activity of their resting brain network. Another brain region showed to be activated during certain types of mediation is the insula; an area with a role in awareness. These findings could suggest why mediators report being ‘in the moment’ during their practice.

3. Control of Emotion

Have you ever met someone who never seems flustered by their feelings and gives off a vibe of ‘calmness’? Well, you should ask them if they meditate because scientific investigation has shown experienced meditators have more control over their emotions, especially stress. When presented with unpleasant stimuli or put under a stressful situation, meditators tested could prevent their emotions running away with them and return to their emotional ‘baseline’ with relative ease. Meditators also report a more positive state of mind. To test this claim, scientists have used brain imaging studies while putting meditators under emotional pressure by sharing emotive words, quotes or pictures.  Some of the results of these studies showed reduced activation of the amygdala – the brain region associated with fear & ‘fight or flight’ – in novice mediators during the ’stressful’ scenario and in a non-stressed state, as well as increased activation of prefrontal areas involved in ‘reasoning’. This combination of brain activity could be the ‘reasoned’ thoughts combating the ‘emotional’ brain to give meditators enhanced emotional control. However, experienced meditators have been shown to have reduced prefrontal activation with an unclear picture on amygdala activity. This could potentially be due to their ‘acceptance’ of stressful stimulation and emotional states rather than the need to suppress these feelings like done with beginner meditators. These findings suggest meditation trains the mind to suppress (control) emotional response until the brain ‘learns’ to accept and digest these scenarios. However, more research is required to show if the observed changes in brain activity actually affect emotional response.

Although the above results suggest mediation can change the brain, an important note with these findings is to consider their limitations. Of the studies to date, most of the sample sizes have been small and there hasn’t been a proper long-term study on how peoples brains change with meditation. Also, we need to consider there could be other mechanisms which pre-dispose people to want to meditate in the first place, and this could be an underlying reason for the differences observed in some studies of meditators vs non-meditators. There is much more research to be done!

Signing off

Research on meditation suggests the brain does undergo structural changes with practice in areas associated with emotional control and attention. What needs to be shown in future work is how these changes could induce the positive affects experienced by those who meditate. If we can pin down the biological changes meditation induces, we can understand how the practice may improve general well being as well as other disorders like depression and anxiety. We are not quite at the point of ‘prescribing’ meditation but if you give it a try and it feels good, then it could be something you incorporate into your every day life!

Brain hugs,

Julia xoxo (@julia.ravey.science)

For more on the brain, see my YouTube or website. If you want more deets on mediation and the mind, see this review!

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