Meditation changes your brain

This could be one of the most powerful ways to change your brain and yet, all you have to do is be still. It will help you focus, be keenly observant but not obsessive, and essentially, be a kinder human being.

Meditation. We all have the basic equipment – the 3-pound matter inside our skulls – yet, we generally think that it is only for the religious or for our odd relatives and friends who dress funny.

Two neuroscientists, Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson, and a Buddhist monk who was also a trained cell biologist, Matthieu Ricard, wrote The Mind of the Meditator, an article on the November 2014 issue of the Scientific American. In it, they laid out the main insights about the meditating brain.

For years now, I have been following studies coming out of this line of research in neuroscience. I still remember the first big article on it also in the Scientific American perhaps more than a decade ago. It featured studies where monks, steeped in the meditative tradition, could change their body temperatures at will. Around that same time, I was also doing unrelated research that led me to spend some time with Buddhist monks at the Catskill Mountains in New York and that experience remains to be one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. It was also where I first learned how to meditate.

The article featured the collaborative work of the authors. They scanned the brains of meditative monks, lay but trained meditators, those who have just learned to meditate; and even of those have never meditated, while they were being asked to meditate in different ways.

They found that in the 3 main kinds of meditation, namely focused attention, mindfulness and “compassion and loving kindness”, there are distinct differences in the brains of the various subjects and that these differences speak of their learning and emotional capacities.

For “focused attention”, the focus is on the breath. In this stage, the mind wanders and this is the default mode of the brain. Then something distracts the mind and later, the mind is re-oriented back to the focus. The studies found that for expert meditators, mind wandering also happens but that there is significantly less effort in bringing it back to focus. Attention and “re-attention” comes with ease to the ones experienced in meditation.

Mindfulness calls for the “careful monitoring” of any sensory stimuli without being sucked in by any. In the meditation app that I use, it suggests that I treat what I sense as leaves that are floating by a river and that I just watch them without being carried away. This kind particularly helps me before I drive out to the metro traffic jungle in the morning. In this kind of meditation, the expert meditators in the study experienced significantly less activity in the areas that are associated with anxiety. The studies found that this kind of meditative practice trains the brain to calibrate its emotional reactions to stimuli, decreasing stress-related anxiety.

The results of the studies on the last kind of meditation, “love and compassion”, surprised me. This kind of meditation calls for the meditator to think of the suffering of others and genuinely feel for them and silently repeat the phrase “May all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness and be free from suffering and the causes of suffering”. They compared the brain scans of this kind of meditation to those who underwent exercises on empathy. They found that those who did the former felt for others and were “energized” to help; while the latter, even while they felt the pain of others, also experienced negative emotions. The scientists referred to the latter as ‘empathy fatigue” – some kind of emotional burn-out which they also said an overwhelming share of caregivers experience.

What is more, meditation seems to have even “expanded” brain size. The article mentioned that meditation increased the volume of the prefrontal cortex and insula of the expert meditators. These are brain parts associated with attention, the processing of sensory inputs as well as the control of bodily sensations. The scientists think it is probably due to the increased connections in these areas. However, they were also careful to say that more studies need to be done to really establish that meditation can actually increase your brain matter. For now, it is becoming difficult for me to imagine the possible negative effects of meditation.

“Meditation” used to be the exclusive province of robed and hooded men enacting an ancient tradition. Now, science has joined them, revealing increasing evidence that meditation boosts focus and trains the mind to be clear, calm and calibrated. Far from demolishing what the ancients have known and experienced about meditation, science has even given us a picture of what happens to the very organ as it thinks about how it thinks.  And this time, science shook hands with an ancient tradition. – Rappler.com

 Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, Science Solitaire and Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire. Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.

("Yoga on the beach" image courtesy of ShutterStock)