The Fascinating Ways Meditation Transforms Your Brain -- and Why It Makes You Feel Better
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Meditation yields a surprising number of health benefits, including stress reduction, improved attention, better memory, and even increased creativity and feelings of compassion. But how can something as simple as focusing on a single object produce such dramatic results? Here’s what the growing body of scientific evidence is telling us about meditation and how it can change the way our brains function.
Before we get started it’s worth doing a quick review of what is actually meant by meditation. The practice can take on many different forms, but the one technique that appears most beneficial, and which also happens to be among the most traditional, is called mindfulness meditation, or focused attention.
By mindfulness, practitioners are asked to focus their thoughts on one thought and one thought alone. An overarching goal is to be firmly affixed to the present moment. This typically means concentrating on the breath — observing each inhalation and exhalation — and without consideration to other thoughts. When a “stray” thought arises, the practitioner must be quick to recognize it, and then turn back to the focus of their attention. And it doesn't just have to be the breath; any single thought, like a mantra, will do.
Now, if you’ve ever tried it, you know how unbelievably difficult this is — particularly in this day in age when our attention spans are taxed to the limit. Our minds are notorious at wandering and moving from thought-to-thought; it’s hard sometimes to string just a few seconds of focused attention together.
And indeed, notions that meditation is simply about relaxation or cleansing the mind of allthoughts are common misconceptions. Meditation is hard work and it takes a lot of practice to get better. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to stay focused. Progress can be measured by how long a single thought can be focused upon without straying.
Remarkably, for something so exceedingly simple, it can produce an astounding number of health benefits. Eager to learn more, a growing number of scientists are looking into the cognitive effects of meditation, including studies on Buddhist monks. And they’re learning that meditation is a very powerful tool indeed.
As a quick aside, most of the studies cited here consider the benefits of focused attention. That’s not to suggest that other practices, like open attention, can’t yield positive results as well.
Changes to the Brain
Buddhists have meditated for literally thousands of years. They’re familiar with its positive effects, including the way it works to instill the inner strength and insight required for the overarching spiritual practice; meditation, or “sitting,” is to Buddhist monks what prayer is to Christians. But instead of trying to hack into the mind of God, Buddhists are trying to hack into their own mind to harness it under control.
But it has only been in recent times that neuroscientists have been able to peer directly into the brain to see what’s going on. The advent of fMRIs and other brain scanning techniques have largely paved the way.
For example, neuroscientists observing MRI scans have learned that meditation strengthens the brain by reinforcing the connections between brain cells. A 2012 study showed that people who meditate exhibit higher levels of gyrification — the “folding” of the cerebral cortex as a result of growth, which in turn may allow the brain to process information faster. Though the research did not prove this directly, scientists suspect that gyrification is responsible for making the brain better at processing information, making decisions, forming memories, and improving attention.