Science is just beginning to understand the impact of meditation on the body and mind. As a doctor, incorporating meditation and mindfulness-based practices into my treatment of patients and clients has been an integral element of my medical practice for years. I have seen the tremendous clinical benefit meditation can have on personal mental, emotional, and physical health.
As a holistic medical specialist and psychiatrist, I know the benefit of meditation rests in neuroplasticity—essentially defined as the way neurons in the brain communicate to reorganize the brain’s connections. There have been, to date, over a hundred neuroimaging studies that display meditation’s ability to modulate neural networks.
So, what are these brain changes?
Meditation actually increases the gray matter in our brain. Gray matter is where the brain’s neural cells live. It is the thinking part of the brain. It’s responsible for everything from muscle control to sensory perception to memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control. Maintaining gray matter is basically slowing the aging process of the brain since our brains shrink as we age.
How else does meditation affect the brain?
It enhances the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, especially in the prefrontal cortex—the seat of meta-awareness—the fundamental aspect of mindfulness and self-awareness on every level. It regulates complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making and social behaviors. It orchestrates thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals.
Meditation can also shrink the amygdala, which is the reptilian part of our brain. These changes in the amygdala are correlated with a reduction in stress, since the amygdala is responsible for anxiety, fear, and stress, decreasing biological biomarkers associated with stress (i.e., cortisol). A smaller amygdala can also help to reduce symptoms of PTSD and trauma.
Dr. J. David Creswell found that people who regularly practice mindfulness mediation, defined as an open and receptive nonjudgmental awareness of the present experience, not only showed more activity or communication among the portions of the brain that processed stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm but showed lower levels of unhealthy inflammation.
The intangible benefits:
I have seen this in clinical settings, but it has yet to be quantified by science. Meditation helps build the most important relationship you have—your relationship with yourself. My patients who have successfully adopted a meditative practice are happier, more at peace, and develop greater clarity and insight into themselves and their lives.
They are more connected, and their meditative journey is transformative. Meditation is medicine. It‘s perhaps the most underutilized tool we have at our fingertips to make many of the changes we desire. I have seen it revolutionize so many lives and provide unprecedented benefit.
Along with changes in diet, lifestyle, and exercise, the additional beneficial impact of adopting a structured meditative practice of just 15 to 20 minutes a day can change your brain and your life.