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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Neuroscientist Explains What Happens To Your Brain When You Meditate

Meditation is becoming very popular lately. Perhaps it’s the anecdotal evidence friends are sharing with each other or the fact that more and more science is coming out to confirm the benefits of meditation that it’s encouraging people to take up the practice. Meditation has shown to decrease stress, increase happiness,quality of life, increase gray matter in the brain, making people more compassionate, lowering blood pressure, increasing memory and more. A great series of benefits from such a peaceful practice.
Meditation can be discouraging at times. It’s not easy to calm your mind, stop the thoughts and get into a space that is quiet. Since many of us, especially in western culture, are never taught to explore this practice at a young age it can be even harder to get  into a quiet meditative space realizing that we are not our thoughts or mind.  If you are looking for some great ways to get into meditation, you can check these out.

What Happens When You Meditate ? 

A group of Harvard neuroscientists came together to study the benefits of meditation on the brain and how it affects mindfulness. Sara Lazar enrolled her team of 16 subjects  in a 8 week mindfulness program to see if meditation, over a short period of time, could begin to create changes in lifestyle and the brain.
The subjects were given a 45 minute guided mindfulness exercise to be used daily and they were encouraged to do various daily activities with as much mindfulness as possible. On average the subjects performed about 27 minutes of mindfulness each day. The results of this study is discussed below.
Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says, “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
One of the biggest things that happens to our brains when we meditate is that it stops processing so much information. Beta waves generally indicate a processing of information. When beta waves are decreased, we see a decrease in information processed. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, (MRI) we can see how and where beta waves are decreasing the most. This is indicated by the color changes in the image below.
MRI images before and after meditation.
MRI images before and after meditation.
Taking things a little deeper, the following areas of the brain were affected by meditation in different ways.
Frontal lobe
This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.
Parietal lobe
This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.
Thalamus
The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.
Reticular formation
As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.
“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” Sarah Lazar Ph.D., the study’s senior author.
The video below is a presentation from neuroscientist Sara Lazar about how meditation affects your brain.

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