Editor's note: By now we're all familiar with the many benefits of a regular meditation practice, but do we really know how exactly it's affecting our brain power? Psychologist and meditation expert Dr. Paula Watkins breaks it down for us with plenty of scientific research to back it up.
Here are five ways that meditation changes the brain, and how those changes lead to tangible benefits for you.
1. Meditation keeps your hippocampus healthy to enhance learning and memory.
The hippocapmus is a small region of the brain buried deep within the subcortex. It plays important roles in learning, emotion regulation and specifically helps with the consolidation of information, from the short-term to long-term memory.
In 2011, researchers at Harvard were among the first to demonstrate that just eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training caused significant increase in the thickness of the hippocampus.
2. Meditation tells your amygdala to chill out and helps to lower stress levels.
The same team of Harvard researchers also found that mindfulness meditation decreases brain cell volume in the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fear, anxiety and stress.
These changes matched with the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, demonstrating how changes in the brain correlate with subjective perception and feelings as well.
3. Meditation builds a faster, fatter and fitter frontal cortex, helping to improve focus, concentration and attention.
Since focusing our attention on an object (ex: breath or mantra) is one of the central practices of meditation, it’s no surprise that meditation should help improve our ability to focus and be less susceptible to distractions.
Improved concentration and attention is one of the most well-studied benefits of meditation.
How this happens is actually quite simple. When we focus our mind, we activate the frontal cortex and increase blood flow to this area. If we do this enough times, we start to see that enhanced blood flow activity become more stable. This activity leads to the growth of grey matter (known as cortical thickening) and can be seen in the brains of meditators.
4. Meditation increases gray matter and lengthens telomeres helping to slow the effect of the ageing in the brain.
The human brain starts to decrease in volume and weight as we age, but research has shown that long-term meditators have better preserved brains that non-meditators, as they age. They have more grey matter volume and while older meditators still had some volume loss, it wasn’t as pronounced as the older non-meditators.
Meditation also helps to protect our telomeres, the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. Telomeres are longest when we’re young and naturally shorten as we age. Shorter telomeres are associated with stress and higher risk for many diseases including cancer, and depend on the telomerase enzyme to enable them to rebuild and repair.
5. Meditation activates the insula, enhancing empathy and compassion.
Empathy is about reading others — it’s defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another. Compassion is something different — it’s about sympathetic concern for the suffering of another or oneself.
In the past 10 years, research has consistently shown that meditation enhances both of these qualities. These benefits are traced to a brain region known as the insula.
The insula is a key player in self-awareness and empathy for emotions. It enables us to be mindful of our own emotional reactions, as well as better read and understand those of others. The more empathic people are, the more the insula lights up when we witness emotions in other.
Meditators show enhanced activity in the insula and greater cortical thickness in this region. More recent studies have also shown that meditation increases compassionate responses to the suffering of others.
So there you have it — why not give meditation a try. The more you commit to a regular practice, the more your brain will reap the benefits. Plus, you'll be a lot happier and healthier overall, too.
Cover photo courtesy of the author