Studies are showing how the brain restructures in people who meditate regularly
What’s happening to your brain while you meditate? With the surge in popularity in all things mindful in the last twenty years, this has been a key question for scientists.
It’s now well known that the brain can change and reorganise itself during adulthood, forming new neural pathways, and this phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity. As well as examining the brain’s processes during meditation, numerous studies have now shown how meditation can result in structural changes to the brain.
Of course, meditation itself can mean a whole host of things, from mantras to yoga and tai chi. However, it’s generally understood to mean the activity of bringing attention to the current experience in a non-judgemental and conscientious way .
Let’s looks at some of the components of meditation and how associated brain regions are affected.
Focusing on our breathing or on a mantra, and bringing our attention back when thoughts distract us, are examples of attention regulation. These actions are associated with the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Generally, this region is involved with things like blood pressure, as well as problem solving and decision-making . But during meditation the ACC may help us keep our attention steady by alerting other systems .
Studies have found that experienced meditators have increased cortical thickness in the ACC . The thickness of the cerebral cortex in specific areas is often used to measure cognitive ability as it indicates quantity of nerve cells. The thicker the better!
Centring on a part of the body, or body scans, is another way of focusing your attention during meditation. Although it’s still a matter of regulating attention, the mere fact that now you’re concentrating on your body instead of something else means that different parts of the brain are involved.
The insula is one such area concerned with awareness of bodily states (respiration, heart rate etc.) as well as motor control . People who meditate frequently have greater cortical thickness in the insula , as well as a higher concentration of grey matter  compared to people who don’t meditate.
Part of meditation is acknowledging and accepting emotions that can rise up during the practice, trying not to react, and letting them pass by. Regulating emotions in this way decreases activity in the amygdala . This part of the brain is critical for fight or flight responses, as well as processing fear and stress. One meditation study found that as people’s stress ratings decreased over time, so the structure of their amygdala also decreased .
Another brain region with a role in regulating emotion is the hippocampus, which is mostly involved with memory. Studies have found that meditators have larger hippocampi compared to non-meditators . It is possible that through meditating, the potential changes that could occur to the hippocampus improve how we regulate our emotions .
This kind of research is already being applied in clinical settings. By practising a specific component of meditation, it’s possible that diseases and disorders affecting the associated brain areas could be helped. For instance, focused attention meditation could be helpful for people with attention deficit disorders or bipolar disorder because of the structural changes it could make to the Anterior Cingulate Cortex .
Although this research is very new, it looks as though meditation is even more powerful than we thought.
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