Note: This was written for my psychology class at De Anza.
Still Silence: Meditation And Your Brain
Meditation is one of the oldest practices of attaining higher consciousness, by focusing on the simplest, most basic form of life itself: breath. While often associated with Eastern religions and philosophy, the act of meditation is actually transcendent of any specific religious affiliation, and has been practiced throughout history as a major element of all religions and faiths, including Christianity and Judaism (Weiten 161). Meditation simply refers to a family of practices that focus attention to heighten awareness by bringing mental processes under greater voluntary control (Weiten 161). Research from various experiments suggests that regular meditation can lower stress hormones, help control blood pressure, aid in regulating sleep patterns, and help increase pain tolerance (Weiten 162). However, some psychologists are quick to point out that the same effects might be attainable through other relaxation techniques, as well as through use of placebos. To be sure, additional research is needed to shine a light on this practice, and the potential benefits and effects of meditation need to be studied objectively and empirically.
Modern research is lending a hand in explaining some of the science behind meditation, and its potential neurological and physiological benefits. Studies from some of the country's most distinguished universities have yielded data that have put the ancient benefits of meditation into scientific terms, and the results are astounding and exciting. With the use of fMRI and EEG technology, scientists are able to objectively study, document, and begin to visually comprehend what it is exactly that meditation does to the human brain.
According to a study performed at UCLA, it was discovered that long-term meditators had better preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged (Walton). That is, participants who had been meditating for twenty years or more showed more grey matter throughout their brains than their non-meditating counterparts. Grey matter makes up the majority of the brain's neuronal cell bodies, and also includes regions of the brain involved in sensory perception (i.e sight, sound, emotions, self control) and muscle control (wikipedia). As Florian Kurth, the author of the study, explained: " [. . .] what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain" (Walton).
A recent study from Harvard and the University of Sienna found that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety and depression by actually altering the physiology of the human brain (Hall). Scientists took 24 subjects that had never before meditated, and guided them through an eight week meditation course, where they meditated for 45 minutes a day. They also completed a two and a half hour session each week detailing the various components and methods of meditation. MRI tests were conducted before and after the program, as well as extensive psychological evaluations throughout the experiment, and the data gathered revealed astonishing results:
"[The study] revealed that the subjects experienced a thickening in the part of the brain responsible for emotions and perception. Such changes strengthen the body's physiological resilience against worry, anxiety and depression" (Hall).
This is not merely a single, isolated experiment -- a 2011 Harvard study found the same thing (Walton). Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and her team at Harvard Medical School, gathered data that corroborate these findings. After eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), it was discovered in the subject's brains that the cortical thickness in the hippocampus had increased. The hippocampus is the part of the limbic system involved in learning and memory (Weiten 76), and plays important roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There was also a decrease in brain cell volume found in the amygdala, the area in the brain responsible for aggression, fear, anxiety and stress (Walton). A similar study carried out at Yale University also achieved similar results, seeing an overall quieting of the Default Mode Network of the brain, or DMN, which causes incessant worry and repetitive thought patterns (Walton). These studies led scientists to conclude that meditation can lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain.
A potentially huge breakthrough in meditation research is that it can provide a heightened tolerance of pain (Weiten 162). In the US, there is a worsening opioid epidemic, with overdose deaths reaching an all time high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, opioid drug overdose deaths have risen over 200% (Kounang). Each year, the number of fatalities increase, with opiates involved in 61% of all drug overdoses (Kounang). In the midst of this ever prevalent crisis, safer alternatives to methods of pain management are in high demand. A number of recent studies have demonstrated that meditation can in fact increase the tolerance of pain (Weiten 162). In a 2009 study, Grant and Rainville compared the pain sensitivity of thirteen experienced Zen meditators and thirteen non-meditators. Carefully controlled pain was administered by applying heat to the participants' calves. The Zen meditators were able to handle significantly more pain than the control group (Weiten 162). Further studies suggested that the heightened tolerance was associated with increased thickness in the regions of the brain that register pain -- that is, meditation appeared to have produced enduring alterations in brain structure responsible for the meditators' increased pain tolerance (Weiten 162).
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a psychologist and Senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, has plenty to say about the human brain. Dr. Hanson is the bestselling author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (2011), and more recently, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (2013). A leader in the understanding of the science behind meditation, Dr. Hanson continues to gain insight and share the benefits of mindful meditation practice. In Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson explains the intricacies of the human brain:
"As you read this, in the five cups of tofu-like tissue inside your head, nested amid a trillion support cells, 80 to 100 billion neurons are signaling one another in a network with about half a quadrillion connections, called synapses. All this incredibly fast, complex, and dynamic neural activity is continually changing your brain. Active synapses become more sensitive, new synapses start growing within minutes, busy regions get more blood since they need more oxygen and glucose to do their work, and genes inside neurons turn on or off. Meanwhile, less active connections wither away in a process sometimes called neural Darwinism: the survival of the busiest. . . . Day after day, your mind is building your brain" (Hanson).
With so much constant neurological and cognitive action, it makes sense that even a few moments of regular concentrated stillness and mindfulness can bring about significant changes to the way your brain works. Only recently have we been able to scientifically pinpoint how meditation works, and what it does to the human brain. Amazingly, this is only the beginning -- as technology continues to evolve, we may continue to see further evidence as to how something as simple as focusing on your breath consciously and regularly can bring about massive shift in how the human brain functions.
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1. Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes and Variations, Briefer Version, Ninth Edition. California: Wadsworth CENAGE Learning, 2014. Print.
2. Walton, Alice G. 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain. forbes.com Forbes. Web.
3. Hall, Alena. Meditation Is Even More Powerful Than We Originally Thought. huffingtonpost.com Huffington Post. Web.
4. Grey Matter. wikipedia.com Wikipedia. Web.
5. Kounang, Nadia. Drug Overdose Deaths Reach An All-Time High. cnn.com CNN. Web.
6. Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York. Ebook.