If you're a seasoned meditator, you may wholeheartedly insist that your practice has transformed your thinking and your brain. And if you've never meditated before—or are a bit of a skeptic—you might wholeheartedly doubt that that could possibly be true. Either way, it's natural (not to mention a good thing) to want to know more about what's happening in your brain and body.
Wherever you are on your meditation journey, don't worry, because science has you covered. Researchers are right there with you, trying to prove (and disprove) the powers of meditation and explain exactly what your brain is up to when you take the time to go inward. Here are eight things we know happen in the brain during meditation:
1. Your brain will make more GABA.
Research has shown1 that GABA production, a neurotransmitter in the brain, gets a boost when you meditate. This is beneficial because lower levels of GABA are associated with higher levels of anxiety. In fact, drugs like Valium and Klonopin actually work by increasing GABA levels in the brain, but these drugs also have negative side effects, including anterograde amnesia, CNS depression, and a decrease in focus and alertness.
2. Your amygdala will shrink.
3. The networks in the brain will change.
Studies have shown that people with meditation experience have increased connectivity between certain regions of the brain, such as those associated with attention and disengaging from distraction. These also happen to be some of the fundamental principles of a meditation practice.
4. Your other senses will get a workout.
Long-term meditators often demonstrate2 an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain responsible for feeling and hearing. This makes sense because mindfulness is all about closing your eyes, filtering outside stimulation, and focusing inward—all of which can enhance your other senses. What’s interesting, is that this study mentioned specific areas in the brain’s cerebral cortex that represent executive function, thinking, and planning. These areas were not only increased in meditation groups, but also were not affected when compared to age-related changes in controls.
5. Your mind will look more youthful.
6. Your dopamine will shoot through the roof.
7. You will create more folds in your brain.
A study by the National Institutes of Health showed that meditators had more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This folding (or gyrification) is known to boost how well the brain processes information.
8. Norepinephrine levels will drop.
Norepinephrine (NE) is another neurotransmitter involved in anxiety. Studies have shown3 that if you compare meditators with nonmeditators, people with a regular practice had lower levels of NE in their blood.
So is meditation your brain's best friend? The science and research points to "yes." But really, there's no way to know for sure until you try it out for yourself. What are you waiting for?
Gretchen Lidicker has a B.S. in biology and earned her master’s degree in physiology with a concentration in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She's the author of CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Hemp-Derived Health and Wellness and Magnesium Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide to Epsom Salts, Magnesium Oil, and Nature's Relaxation Mineral. A Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurveda-trained yoga instructor, expert bread baker, and farmers market fanatic, she believes that no day is complete without a good dance party.