What exactly does meditation do?

Meditation has become an increasingly popular practice in recent years due to its many benefits, both psychological and neurological. Researchers have conducted numerous studies to determine how meditation affects the brain, and the results are promising. Meditation has been shown to produce measurable changes in brain structure and function, including changes in grey matter volume and enhanced connectivity between brain regions. These changes have been linked to improvements in cognitive function, attention, and concentration. Moreover, meditation has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and social anxiety disorder, and can improve emotional processing and reduce reactive aggression.

This article will discuss some of the most exciting studies to come out in recent years that demonstrate the measurable changes meditation can produce in the brain, as well as the psychological benefits it can provide.

The Aging Brain Can Be Preserved with Meditation

One study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who had been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain, which is significant because the loss of grey matter is often associated with cognitive decline. Although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. The study revealed that they expected to see small and distinct effects in regions previously associated with meditation, but instead, they observed a widespread effect that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain. This suggests that the benefits of meditation go far beyond specific regions of the brain and can have a global impact.

Meditation Lowers Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center”

Another interesting study, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. The DMN is active when our minds are not focused on anything in particular, and it has been associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with these negative states, it’s the goal for many people to reduce it. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just that. Additionally, because of the new connections that form during meditation, meditators are better at snapping back out of mind-wandering when it does occur.

Depression and Anxiety Can Be Alleviated with Effects Comparable to Antidepressants through Meditation

A review study from Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researchers found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3, which is the same as the effect size for antidepressants. Meditation is an active form of brain training that increases awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways. Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, as no treatment is, but it’s one of the tools that may help manage symptoms.

Harvard University Research – Key Areas of the Brain May Experience Volume Changes with Meditation

In 2011, a team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can change the structure of the brain. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. These changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it also changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. A follow-up study found that after meditation training, changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal were also linked to improvements in how participants said they felt, indicating that meditation can improve our psychological well-being.

Concentration and Attention Get a Boost with Just a Few Days of Meditation Training

Having problems concentrating is not just a problem for children; it affects millions of adults as well, with or without an ADD diagnosis. One of the central benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration. One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. The increase in score was equivalent to 16 percentile points.

Meditation Reduces Anxiety, Including Social Anxiety

Meditation can also be a valuable tool for individuals experiencing social anxiety. In a 2013 study, researchers found that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training reduced social anxiety symptoms in individuals with generalised social anxiety disorder (GSAD). Participants reported a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms, and brain scans showed changes in neural activity patterns in areas of the brain associated with self-referential thoughts and emotion regulation.

Improvement of emotional processing and reduction of reactive aggression

Furthermore, a study conducted in 2018 found that meditation can improve emotional processing and reduce reactive aggression in individuals with high levels of trait anger. The study showed that a four-week mindfulness meditation program was effective in reducing aggressive responses to provocation in participants.

Overall, the research suggests that meditation can be a valuable tool for improving mental health and well-being. The benefits of meditation extend beyond just relaxation and stress reduction, with studies showing measurable changes in brain structure and function, improvements in cognitive function, and reductions in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and social anxiety disorder.