Does Mindfulness Meditation Change Your Brain?
Do you take time to focus on your breath? Observe your thoughts? Find a daily period of stillness?
This could be doing more for your brain than just finding inner peace.
Meditation is a current fave in the world of well-being – with multi-million dollar apps, dedicated retreats and GP-prescribed courses. Mindfulness meditation specifically is the method of non-judgementally observing your thoughts and being fully present in the moment. Normally achieved by focusing on the breath, regular participation in this practice claims to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and combat mood disorders. I started to meditate over the past year and feel it has definitely helped me become calmer and more aware. But as a neuroscientist, my daily practice got me thinking – are my attempts at meditation actually altering my brain? Scientists have begun to explore the ins and outs of how mindfulness meditation might impact our brains, bodies and well-being.
Mindfulness meditation could alter brain structure
Multiple studies have taken a closer look at the brain before, during and after meditation. Using brain scanners, research has suggested regions of the brain associated with awareness, memory and emotion regulation are activated during the meditation process. When observing brain activity of meditating buddhist monks – who have racked up tens of thousands of hours of meditation time – a study found increased gamma-wave activity. The presence of this wave length in the brain is an indicator of neural plasticity; the active process where connections between brain cells called neurons are altered. In addition, a brain region called the anterior insula was highly activated in buddhist monks vs non-meditator controls whilst listening to negative sounds during meditation. The insula is a brain region proposed to be important in self-awareness and interpreting signals from the body. A recent analysis of 25 meditation studies found the right anterior insula was the only region which showed significant activation across the majority of the research analysed. Changes in connectivity in this region and a decision making area called with anterior cingulate cortex were also noted. The cause of these alterations observed in the brain’s of meditators now need to be established to truly understand if and how mindfulness meditation induces them.
Mindfulness meditation may improve attention
A key component of meditation is awareness. In addition to focusing on the here and now whilst participating in a session, mindfulness meditation has been linked with enhancing attention outside of practice in numerous studies. Increased attention is something many of us strive for when trying to achieve our goals, knowing good focus can increase our ability to do quality work consistently. Mindfulness meditation has been reported to improve conflict monitoring – where the brain is dealing with competing stimuli when making a decision – which is a component of increased attention. Increasing alertness over longer lengths of time has also been associated with extensive mindfulness training and a research study suggested even short-term meditation could provide attention-based benefits. However, other studies have found no such link, highlighting a problem with study design in the meditation field.
Mindfulness meditation may help alleviate stress and improve emotional regulation
Many people come to meditation with an aim to destress and provide some distance between emotion and reaction. Research is investigating if meditation could assist in both these aims and some studies suggest mindfulness practice enables the brain to alter signalling between our “logical” and “emotional” brain centres. It has been proposed increased activity in logical (frontal) brain regions could reduce activity in emotional (limbic) areas, resulting in reduced stress, anxiety and reactivity. In beginners, enhanced brain activity in prefrontal regions – those associated with more logical processes – has been observed after participating in mindfulness training courses. However, in experienced meditators, diminished prefrontal activity has been reported. This contrast has been proposed to occur due to beginners needing effort to alter their emotional reactivity compared to experienced meditators. Well-practiced meditators may have habitualised this process, meaning active control over their emotional centres is not required. A long-term study assessing the impact meditation has on individuals with anxiety found increased correlation between frontal and limbic activity following the course; suggesting enhanced monitoring over emotional responses. Additionally, a recent study report how a 4-week meditation programme can improve our ability at processing fearful events. However, exactly how meditation might be influencing these changes is still being investigated.
But! We can’t fully make these claims yet
Although research on this topic is suggesting consistent mindfulness meditation might have pretty significant impacts on the human brain, there are flaws within these studies. Some are conducted on small numbers of people, making it harder to rule out if observed changes are caused by chance. Also, meditation practice varies across research and some studies don’t have an appropriate control group. Without having a group of subjects participating in a similar activity (like relaxation training) alongside the meditation group, it is harder to pinpoint if it is the mindfulness meditation or other factors – like regular participation in activity or being in a community – driving the results.
Similarly, studies which look at meditators at a single point in time – like observing buddhist monks in an MRI scanner – are more tricky to interpret in terms of meditation (and not other factors) changing the brain. The best set-up to investigate if mindfulness meditation really does alter our brains is to measure individuals over a prolonged period of time whilst practicing alongside non-meditating controls. Even then, it is difficult to control EVERYTHING (I don’t think many people would want to give up their normal life for months on end for a study). But having more consistencies regarding meditation type, long-term monitoring and lots of people involved will give us a better idea of if – and if so, how – meditation truly changes our brains.
Finally, it is key observed brain changes are linked to real-life behaviours. Knowing this is important for setting our expectations when beginning to meditate and understanding what benefits we can tangibly get from the process.
If you feel a bit in your head, overwhelmed or anxious, giving meditation a go could bring you some much needed space. I tagged my 10 minute meditation session onto my morning shower, so every day I fit it in. Even if I have a session where I find it hard to stop thinking, it is nice knowing I have given myself at least some time in the day to just be still.
Julia xoxo (@julia.ravey.science)
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This has been a time of huge stress. If you are struggling, reach out to your GP for advice and guidance.
For more on this topic, see this review!