The Science of Meditation and How it Benefits Your Brain

By Amy Taylor on May 28, 2013

You probably know by now that meditation has a lot of benefits not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well. But do you know how it really works? Knowing the science behind meditation is very interesting. It clears all your doubts you may have and at the same time, strengthens your desire to keep practising this ancient mind-and-body technique. Without further ado, let’s explore the human brain on meditation.

The Brain on Meditation

During meditation, some areas in your brain light up. Although your body is so relaxed that you may feel like you’re already falling asleep, your brain under meditation remains alert. What are these brain areas? These are the lateral prefrontal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. Also called the ‘Assessment centre’, the lateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that allows you to look at things in a more rational, logical and balanced way. It is responsible for helping you overcome automatic behaviours or habits and reduce your tendency to take things personally. The medial prefrontal cortex on the other hand, is the area that is involved whenever you reflect on yourself, daydream, or engage in social interactions. It processes information about yourself, that’s why it’s often called the ‘ME centre’. This region is then divided into two parts. The first is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – the part that makes you take things too personally. It is responsible for processing information related to you and the people you view as “similar” to you. Too much activity in this area results to depressive thoughts, and negative emotions or feelings. The second is the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) – the area that processes information concerning other people you view as ‘dissimilar’ to you. It is involved in feeling empathy and maintaining social relationships.

Other areas in the brain that are active when you meditate are the insula and the amygdala. The insula is what monitors bodily sensations. It helps you sense whether something is good or dangerous to your body and guides you in determining an appropriate response. The amygdala is known as the ‘fear centre’ of the brain. It is responsible for most of our initial emotional reactions, also called the “flight or fight” responses.

What’s the use of knowing all these things? And what do they have to do with meditation?

The Brain before Meditation

Before undergoing meditation, the neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex or the ME centre are stronger than the rest of the areas in the brain. This means that it is processing all the information when it shouldn’t. So whenever you feel anxious, scared or in pain (or any other form of discomfort), you are more likely to think that there is a problem. Over time, it becomes more and more difficult for you to determine emotions or feelings that you should just ignore and those that you should give more focus on.

On the other hand, the neuronal connections in the lateral prefrontal cortex or the Assessment centre are weak. It should work in the same level with your ME centre so everything is well-balanced. It is intended to modulate the excessive activity in the vmPFC and enhance the activity in the dmPFC. When this equilibrium is achieved, your brain becomes more able to process information, discard erroneous data and view things in a balanced perspective. Furthermore, it prevents your mind from overthinking.

The Brain in Regular Meditation

When you meditate, this imbalance between your ME centre and Assessment centre gets corrected gradually and a lot more positive changes happen. First, meditation weakens the strong connection between your ME centre and the insula (the part that reacts to bodily sensations). As this happens, you become less likely to assume that a momentary feeling of fear means something is wrong with you. This is probably why most people who meditate report being less anxious. Meditation calms your mind by loosening up the tight connections in your ME centre, preventing you from putting the “blame” all to yourself. Second, meditation strengthens the connection between the Assessment centre and the amygdala – your fear centre. This allows you to not get easily carried away by your emotions and assess things in a more rational perspective.

Another benefit of meditating is this – it weakens the connection within the ME centre, especially the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex which is involved in processing information on people we view as “dissimilar” to us. In turn, you develop more empathy rather than indifference. You become more likely to understand where a person is coming from and connect with him or her despite the presence of dissimilarities. Ultimately, meditation makes you a more compassionate individual.

To obtain all these benefits however, you have to practise meditation on a daily basis. Whilst meditation has immediate benefits, such as lowering of the blood pressure, loosening up of tight muscles, and a deep sense of relaxation, to stimulate brain changes, it has to be repeated on a regular basis. That’s because the brain is very flexible. When you stop, it easily gets back to its old self. Just like exercising. When you discontinue with your programme, you are more likely to regain weight. In 2012, a study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that the more years a person had been meditating, the more positive changes there are in the brain.

So why not meditate? After all, it only takes 15 to 30 minutes of your time. Meditation is an easy mental exercise that you can do all by yourself. But if you’re new to it, it’s more advisable to seek professional guidance. Once you’ve mastered the art of meditating, you can certainly do it on your own.

Have you tried meditating? How did it affect the way you view yourself and other people? We’d like to hear your story. Post your comment below.

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