meditation & brain science

Tune your brain for happiness and effectiveness

A huge amount of research over the last few years has given us a better idea of what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation brings us long term benefits. Meditation, for example:

  • Helps to slow down aging of the brain
  • Increases thickness in parts of the brain to do with memory and learning
  • Reduces mind-wandering and unhappiness
  • Increases the thickness of parts of the brain connected with emotional regulation
  • Improves concentration
  • Reduces our susceptibility to anxiety and depression
  • Helps us tolerate pain
  • Reduces feelings of isolation

It may seem rather staggering that one activity can lead to such a varied range of benefits. It is clear in fact that meditation has not just one effect on the brain, but generally helps it to run optimally. Indeed, meditation could almost be defined as “a series of exercises that help us to optimize our brains.”

Neuroscience offers us a more precise way of talking about the mechanisms of meditation. For example, we can recognize that in meditating we are exercising and thickening the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala, which is involved in generating anxiety, and thus encouraging the amygdala to shrink, leading to long-term changes in our emotional being. Some of our older ways of talking about our experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to say that emotions are like hydraulic fluids that will leak or burst out if we don’t express them. This isn’t how the brain works! Neuroscience gives us more accurate metaphors and thus helps us to understand ourselves better.

Neuroscientists can actually see the changes I’ve described above taking place in the brain. Not only that, but they can see them happening over a timescale of a few weeks, rather than the years we might assume they might require. Most neuroscientific trials last only eight weeks. And in many of those trials, participants are meditating for an average of around 20 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time!

If you’re one of those people who assumes that somehow you’re not cut out for meditation, or believes that only certain people (the “spiritual” ones) will experience the kinds of benefits I’ve outlined, then perhaps you will find confidence in knowing that exercising the brain is, in many respects, exactly like exercising the body. Just as repeated physical exercise will inevitably promote muscle growth or flexibility, so repeated meditation will help promote brain growth and emotional resilience.

I’d like to add one caveat, which is that in talking about optimizing your brain I’m using a figure of speech known as a metonym. In metonymy, we use a part to represent a whole, or sometimes a whole to represent a part. So when we talk, for example, about combatting climate change in order to “save the planet,” we’re using a metonym. It’s not the planet we want to save, but the biosphere that lives on the planet. Similarly, when we talk about optimizing the brain, we really mean that we’re optimizing our entire being, or even our entire lives.

That’s what we’ll be exploring in the 28 sessions of my online course, Optimize Your Brain. We’ll be focusing on brain research and meditation in order to bring positive change in a number of aspects of our lives, including developing greater calmness and focus, enhancing our ability to experience happiness, boosting our creativity and intelligence, bringing into being greater interpersonal harmony, and cultivating insight.

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Meditation expert tells us what the science really says

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald: So you fell asleep easily enough, but now it’s 3 a.m. Your mind is spinning, and rest is elusive. You’re reliving every foolish or embarrassing thing you did in the past 24 — or 48 or 72 — hours, and that is a lot of material to run through. And you simply can’t stop.

Except maybe you could, if only you knew how to be mindful.

“When you’re caught in that loop of rumination, that’s very real, and it creates very intense feelings,” explains psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, who reported on brain …

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It’s brain science: University fights binge drinking with meditation

Susan Donaldson James, NBCNews: A song by U2 blares from loudspeakers as Dr. James Hudziak tosses a brain-shaped football back and forth to students, calling them out by name as they file in to the University of Vermont lecture hall.

The neuroscience course, “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies,” is about to begin, first with meditation, then the latest research on the benefits of clean living.

The class is part of a pioneering program — Wellness Environment or WE, which is anchored in four pillars of health: exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and mentorship.

Last year, the university accepted 120 …

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Mindfulness meditation linked to the reduction of a key inflammation marker

Fiona MacDonald, Science Alert: Mindfulness meditation has been linked both to a whole lot of health benefits over the years, from altering cancer survivors’ cells to improving heart health. And while it sounds pretty new-age, research has shown that meditation really can change the shape, volume, and connectivity of our brains. But until now, no one’s known how those brain changes can impact our overall health.

Now new research could help explain that link between mind and body, with a study showing that stressed-out adults who practiced mindfulness meditation not only had their brain connectivity …

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Science and meditation: integrating a first-person experience into the scientific process

Marjorie Woollacott, Huffington Post: As a long time meditator and neuroscientist, my interest in the effect of meditation on brain function is both personal and professional. The benefits meditation has brought to my life mirror first-person accounts of other meditation practitioners–basically, a sense of greater peace and more joy.

In addition to being even-minded in the midst of life’s challenges, many meditators describe having experiences that might be called mystical–and not just in the state of meditation but also after their session of meditation has ended. Some individuals say that their …

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Optimizing your brain for happiness and effectiveness

Buddha portrait isolated on white

A huge amount of research over the last few years has shown more clearly what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation benefits us. Meditation, for example,

  • Helps to slow down aging of the brain
  • Increases thickness in parts of the brain to do with memory and learning
  • Reduces mind-wandering and unhappiness
  • Increases the thickness of parts of the brain connected with emotional regulation
  • Improves concentration
  • Reduces our susceptibility to anxiety and depression
  • Helps us tolerate pain
  • Reduces feelings of isolation

It may seem rather staggering that one activity, or collection of related activities, can lead to such a varied range of benefits. It is clear in fact that meditation has not just one effect on the brain, but generally helps it to run optimally. Indeed, meditation could almost be defined as “a series of exercises that help us to optimize our brains.”

Neuroscience offers us a more precise way of talking about the mechanisms of meditation. For example, we can recognize that in meditating we are exercising and thickening the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala, which is involved in generating anxiety, and thus encouraging the amygdala to shrink, leading to long-term changes in our emotional being. Some of our older ways of talking about experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to talk as if emotions were like hydraulic fluids that would leak or burst out if we didn’t express them. This isn’t how the brain works! Neuroscience gives us more accurate metaphors and thus helps us to understand ourselves better.

Neuroscientists can actually see the changes I’ve described above taking place in the brain. Not only that, but they can see them happening over a timescale of a few weeks, rather than the years we might assume they might require. Most neuroscientific trials last only eight weeks. And in many of those trials, participants are meditating for an average of around 20 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time!

If you’re one of those people who assumes that somehow you’re not cut out for meditation, or believes that only certain people (the “spiritual” ones) will experience the kinds of benefits I’ve outlined, then perhaps you will find confidence in knowing that exercising the brain is, in many respects, exactly like exercising the body. Just as repeated physical exercise will inevitably promote muscle growth or flexibility, so repeated meditation will help promote brain growth and emotional resilience.

I’d like to add one caveat, which is that in talking about optimizing your brain I’m using a figure of speech known as a metonym. In metonymy, we use a part to represent a whole, or sometimes a whole to represent a part. So when we talk, for example, about combatting climate change in order to “save the planet,” we’re using a metonym. It’s not the planet we want to save, but the biosphere that lives on the planet. Similarly, when we talk about optimizing the brain, we really mean that we’re optimizing our entire being, or even our entire lives.

That’s what we’ll be exploring in these 28 days. We’ll be focusing on brain research and meditation in order to bring positive change in a number of aspects of our lives, including developing greater calmness and focus, enhancing our ability to experience happiness, boosting our creativity and intelligence, bringing into being greater interpersonal harmony, and cultivating insight.

We’ll be looking both at the theory and the practice of these activities. In terms of practice we’ll start today with a simple mindfulness meditation, a video of which you’ll find embedded below.

This post is extracted from our forthcoming 28-day online course, Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation, which starts January 1. Click here for more details.

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How meditation can reshape our brains

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s amazing brain scans show meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.

Sara’s team at Harvard University uses neuroimaging techniques to study neurological, cognitive and emotional changes associated with the practice of meditation and yoga. They also incorporate measures of peripheral physiology (breathing, heart beat) in order to understand how meditation practice influences the brain-body interaction.

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Science shows what meditation really does to your brain

wildmind meditation newsJon Levine, Science.Mic: Meditation, according to its spiritual gurus, is a universal panacea. Enthusiasts have long preached its benefits, which include its ability to lower anxiety, improve concentration, help treat those with HIV and even extend one’s life expectancy.

While it’s undeniable meditation contributes to a sense of inner piece, its physiological benefits remain less certain. That is, until a team of researchers confirmed them. What they uncovered is more than surprising.

“We found several brain regions that had changed,” Sara Lazar, an associate research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Mic. Lazar conducted a major study on meditation in 2011 and was one …

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Meditation optimizes adaptive behavior

wildmind meditation newsNews-Medical: Certain meditation techniques can promote behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment depending on current goals, rather than remaining rigid and inflexible. This is the outcome of a study by Lorenza Colzato and Iliana Samara from the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition at Leiden University, published in Consciousness and Cognition.

Different meditation types, different effects

Colzato and her fellow researchers were the first to investigate if meditation has an immediate effect on behavior, even in people who have never meditated before. “There are two fundamental types of meditation that affect us …

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How does meditation make you smarter?

wildmind meditation newsViatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, BrainBlogger: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you don’t need to be told about the relaxing effects of meditation. The practitioners vouch for it; and those who don’t, do not dispute it either. Those in the Far East have known for centuries that meditating brings mental peace and spiritual bliss. Now scientists claim that meditation can even alter the brain’s chemistry and functionality.

Over the years, neuroscientists have carried out brain imaging tests on long-term practitioners of meditation, including several Tibetan …

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