New scientific studies are beginning to confirm what some ancient cultures have known for centuries; meditation can actually change our brains.
Meditative practices appear to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. Below are some of the most exciting studies to come out in the last few years and show that meditation really does produce measurable changes in our most important organ.
1. Meditation Keeps our Brain Young
A 2015 study from UCLA found that participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain. "We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating," said study author Florian Kurth. "Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
2. Meditation Increases our Attention Span
Just like we need to exercise our muscles, we also need to strengthen our attention. Focused-attention meditation is an excellent way to do this.
One study found that people who listened to a meditation tape experienced improved attention and accuracy while completing a task, compared with those in a control group.
A similar study showed that people who regularly practiced meditation performed better on a visual task and had a greater attention span than those without any meditation experience.
A Yale University study found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), of the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.”
Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to quiet the mind, and prevent it from wandering down worrisome or unhelpful paths. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.
4. Meditation Helps us Overcome Stress, Anxiety & Depression
Managing stress, anxiety and depression are some of the key reasons many people start meditating.
Mental and physical stress usually causes increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines.
In an 8-week study conducted in 2013, a meditation style called “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress. Research has also shown that meditation may improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia.
Inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which are released in response to stress, can affect mood, leading to depression. A review of several studies suggests meditation may also reduce depression by decreasing levels of these inflammatory chemicals.
A review study at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3, which is the same as the effect of most anti-depressants. Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.” Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, as no treatment is, but it’s one of the tools that may help manage symptoms.
5. Meditation Can Help with Addiction
The mental discipline you can develop through meditation may help you break dependencies by increasing your self-control and awareness of triggers for addictive behaviour.
A growing number of studies has shown that, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction. One study, for example, compared mindfulness training to the American Lung Association's freedom from smoking program, and found that people who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to have quit smoking by the end of the training, and at 17 weeks follow-up, than those in the conventional treatment. This may be because meditation helps people “decouple” the state of craving from the act of smoking, so the one doesn’t always have to lead to the other, but rather you fully experience and ride out the “wave” of craving, until it passes.
One study in 60 people receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder found that practicing transcendental meditation was associated with lower levels of stress, psychological distress, alcohol cravings, and alcohol use after 3 months.