Your Brain on Meditation
Your Brain on Meditation
The practise of meditation is not only an important component of yoga but also an effective method of stress alleviation. Meditation has been trending among urban professionals who live in a fast-paced culture and are constantly being bombarded with information overflow and techno-stress. It is no wonder many large corporations in Silicon Valley like Google, Intel, Facebook and Twitter have been regularly using meditation and yoga to help their employees not only deal with stress, but increase their competitive edge in terms of creativity. Similarly, the creators of lululemon launched a brand called WHIL – a company marketed as “a brand about nothing”, created simply to share 60 second meditation tools to those who need them.
Meditation, however, is not exactly a new thing – it was practised 2,500 years ago in South Asia and has ancient roots in Buddhism. The recent popularity meditation has gained in western culture is not just the latest hype, but a response to the growing prevalence of mental illness. If meditation can be a tool to relieve stress and anxiety, perhaps it can play an even larger role in anxiety-related diseases like depression and bipolar disorder. In fact, this is the question researchers have been interested in for some time – to find concrete evidence that long-term meditation can change the brain’s physiology.
In 2014, Dr. Madhav Goyal from Johns Hopkins University studied different methods of meditation in patients from 47 clinical trials (3515 participants) with a variety of mental and physical illnesses including depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance use, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, attention deficit disorder, and chronic pain. First, it was found that “mindfulness meditation” was the most effective form of meditation. Contrary to what most people think, this form of meditation is not the act of sitting, emptying your mind and doing nothing. It increases self-awareness by actively focusing on the present moment, concentrating on current experiences and feelings while passing no judgment on them. Participants of this study meditated for 30-40 minutes each day for 6 months. After 8 weeks, the group with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain showed evidence of improvement. Individuals living with depressive disorders will note that medication helps keep the symptoms at a manageable level, and meditation helps them find a sense of calm and clarity in the chaos. Often, people will note that the negative feelings are still very much present, but that long-term meditation help wire the brain to recognize that those feelings will eventually pass.
Another study done two years prior investigated changes in brain anatomy as a result of meditation. Dr. Eileen Luders from UCLA followed 50 regular meditators and compared their brain scans to 50 control participants matched for age, sex and handedness. Interestingly, they found that long-term meditators had more gyrification or folding in the cortex of the brain. Moreover, there is a positive relationship between the number of years an individual practises meditation and the amount of folding. While we do not fully understand the effects of increased gyrification, the results of this study give us clues into the brain’s ability to change and adapt to different environments over time – a process called neuroplasticity. For example, there is a pathway in the brain called the default mode network (DMN). It is most active during rest – when the brain wanders, daydreams, makes projections into the future or ponders on past memories. Many mental disorders arise from the over-activation of this network. Dr. Luders found that increased gyrification in some areas of the brain can give better control over the DMN. One of them is the insular cortex, an area of the brain that controls consciousness, emotion, perception, and self-awareness. This makes sense because individuals who practice meditation are often more self-aware and have greater emotional control. Studies like these are beginning to unveil that meditation, when practised regularly and consistently, is able to do more than just calm the mind. There is an entire circuit of neurons can be exercised to give us better control over emotions and perhaps, even alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
References & Further Reading
Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being (Johns Hopkins, 2014):
Meditation and Gyrification (UCLA, 2012):
WHIL on 8 companies that meditate:
TED: 4 studies on meditation, heart, brain, and creativity: