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Neurally Speaking, How Does Meditation Work?

With reportedly over 18 million Americans having practiced meditation at some point and trendy modern meditation centers popping up around the world, there’s no doubt that meditation is hitting the mainstream. We’ve heard story after story of highly successful people (Arianna Huffington, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey) crediting meditation as a tool for prosperity. But how exactly does it work?

Meditation is the practice of conditioning the mind to a state of mindfulness, awareness, and presentness through breathing and regulation of thought. Studied for decades, the benefits of meditation are boundless— improving stress, anxiety, depression, pain, aging, perception, attention, sleep, and overall well-being. But what is the science backing the ancient practice? How is it that intentional breathing and mindfulness alter our functions? The answer lies within the mind, in the alterations that meditation creates on the physical structure of the brain.

Neuroimaging studies show the mechanisms behind the action— the pathways to which meditation literally alters the brain, structurally and functionally.

1. Neuroplasticity

Contrary to previous scientific notions, more recent evidence shows that the brain actually changes into and throughout adulthood. Plasticity refers to this ability of the brain to change by means of rewiring connections and communications between neurons. Experienced in situations like repetitively learning a new task, plasticity can actually create new circuits in and between certain brain regions that impact learning, behavior, emotion, and brain recovery. Meditation is one of those tasks that facilitates neuroplasticity, specifically in regions associated with higher-level functions (such as attention, decision-making, planning, impulse control, and consciousness). And according to researchers, the more you meditate, the more your brain activates and changes these circuits. Plasticity even helps explain how meditators take mindfulness from the practice and apply it to everyday life and situations. For instance, one of the brain circuits that meditation rewires is the Default Network Mode which is responsible for daydreaming and those situations when we “go on autopilot”. Learning to focus attention and become fully present in meditation will translate over to everyday life and diminish the internal default mode. So no more zoning out and forgetting how you got from home to work.

2. Telomere length

Telomeres are DNA structures capping the ends of each chromosome. They function to protect our chromosomes, and telomere length has become a key indicator of longevity. Telomeres shorten naturally as we age and as more cells divide. These shorter telomeres are associated with age-related diseases and poor survival. Telomere degradation is also linked to lifestyle and environmental factors such as stress, obesity, smoking, and pollution exposure. Alternatively, a positive change in lifestyle and environmental factors has proven to increase telomere length and subsequent health/longevity. The enzyme telomerase is responsible for elongating telomeres and releases in excess quantity when we meditate. It is thought that meditation’s effects of stress reduction and positive state of mind are attributed to telomere lengthening. More specifically, studies have shown increased telomerase activity in as little as 8-weeks of mindfulness meditation practiced 12 minutes per day. So it makes sense that meditation is linked to aging healthfully, gracefully, and slowly.

3. Cortical thickening

Meditation has also been linked to changes in the brain’s cortical thickness. A study conducted with Zen meditators showed their meditation-attained thicker cortex in pain-associated brain areas. This thickness is believed to be accountable for the lower pain sensitivity observed in meditators. In the future, meditation could prove helpful in the treatment and prevention of pain-related diseases.

In an 8-week mindful meditation study, increased grey matter density was experienced in the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for learning and emotion. Increases in density have also been measured in the insula, associated with self-awareness. Decreases in grey matter were identified in anxiety-associated regions of the amygdala. These changes in cortical thickness due to meditation are expressed as strengthening functions of perception, compassion, attention, and memory as well as weakening fear and stress. Further, meditation has shown a slowing in age-related frontal cortex thinning in regular meditators. This effect could explain why meditators are more resilient to age-related diseases (e.g., Alzheimer's).

Neuroimaging studies provide evidence that meditation has an effect on several brain regions, each responsible for different functions (voluntary as well as involuntary). Because meditation elicits such a significant change in the brain, meditators are better able to control emotions, attention, and thoughts in a mindful manner. Due to these positive changes, a regular meditation practice can be used as a supplemental or even alternative therapy for anxiety, depression, ADHD, pain regulation, and addiction.

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