Meditation is a mind and body practise that has been used throughout history to promote calmness and physical relaxation, improve psychological balance, and enhance overall wellbeing. It may come as no surprise that meditation has a number of benefits; research suggests that meditation can reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and depression. In general, the practice of mindfulness and meditation leads to happier people, but why? As scientists are beginning to learn, meditation doesn’t just affect the mind, it physically changes the brain.
Bear in mind, these changes are not instantaneous and can take years to develop, and researchers have found that meditation changes the brain in a number of ways. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for rational decision making, becomes enlarged. While the prefrontal cortex grows, the amygdala shrinks. The amygdala is known as the emotional centre of the brain, and smaller amygdalae found in more mindful people are associated with greater emotional control. The size of the hippocampus, which is key to learning and memory, increases. Not only does brain structure change, so does brain activity. High-frequency gamma waves are correlated with states of heightened awareness and bliss, and long term meditators have been found to have more of this type of brain activity.
These changes can be seen in as soon as a few weeks of meditation practice. This is akin to an athlete shaping their body with the repeated exercise of certain muscles at the gym. Like the rest of our body, the brain adapts to changes as we use it. Meditation is a general term, and like exercise, there are different types and techniques that train our minds in unique ways. In the western world, but among the myriad of methods there are also Mahamudra, Vedic, loving-kindness, visualization practices, and much more.
This discovery, that meditation alters brain structure, challenges the long-standing notion that the brain stops development by adulthood. Furthermore, these recent findings have given rise to a concept of mental fitness where the mind can be trained like a muscle through meditative exercises. The key lies in the brain’s neuroplasticity, or its ability to reorder itself by forming new neural connections. How you use your mind affects the number and strength of your synaptic connections. Fortunately, if you feel like your brain is out of shape, you can change your brain with meditation.