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Meditation Effect on our Brains

Amidst the bombardment of stress and the inescapable intrusions of demanding responsibilities we have on a daily basis, it is by no surprise that a number of people are turning to meditation to not only foster well-being but to diminish personal distress and the multitude of maladaptive emotions we may experience during our workday. It is for this reason why we have seen an exponential increase in meditation being implemented to benefit bankers on Wall Street to diplomats at the United Nations to children in educational settings to even soldiers in the U.S. Military. Considering this, we often focus on the psychological benefits of meditation yet rarely do we ponder how this medley of practices alter our brains and the potential neurological benefits it may engender.

With the creation of new neuroimaging techniques in the past decade, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), scientists are beginning to unravel the neurological underpinnings of the mind. Despite this, given the complexity of neuroscientific findings, at times it can seem like alphabet soup reading the myriad of interdependent brain regions and its implications on the brain, body, and mind.

Therefore, we at The LightUp Lab hope to succinctly review some of the latest and most cutting-edge research in the past years on what we know about how meditation affects our noggins.

Meditation Generates Unique Brain Waves Associated with Hyper-focused Attention

Using electroencephalography (EEG), a psychophysiological method that is used to record electrical brain activity, research has shown that meditation practice modulates resting EEG patterns particularly in the increase in gamma power. Gamma is the fastest EEG frequency recorded in the brain and for a long time was ignored, as it was confused with muscle activity since both waves look quite similar to one another. More recently, gamma has been shown to be involved in hyper-focused attention. And, very recently, gamma has been associated with something called “neural binding”, or the rapid integration of information across multiple sensory domains. The notion here is that when one is in a Gamma State, one is hyper-attentively involved in the integration of complex, multisensory information, sort of like a super-brain processing state! One meditation study demonstrated that experienced meditation practitioners were able to self-induce these gamma waves during their own practice!

Meditation May Promote Healthy Brain Aging

Physical brain changes in response to experience, called neural plasticity, is one of the most exciting discoveries of contemporary neuroscience. In the context of how contemplative practice modifies our cortex (the outermost layer of the brain), research by Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard University demonstrated that meditators have higher levels of cortical thickness within the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior insula (AI) compared to non-meditators. Particularly, the AI is well-established to be involved in emotional processing and the PFC in human reasoning and decision making. A follow up study by Britta K. Hölzel and colleagues found similar results, in that, there were increased concentrations of gray matter in brain regions associated with learning and memory processes (hippocampus), self-referential processing (posterior cingulate cortex), regulation of emotion and cognition (cerebellum), and even the conscious experience of the self (temporo-parietal junction). Hence, this may signal that meditation may act as a protective factor against aging by decelerating neural degeneration in brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing.

Meditation Alters How Our Brain Works and How We Think and Feel

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a highly popular technique in neuroscience, is a neuroimaging instrument that relies on the magnetic properties of blood to enable scientists to see images of blood flow in the brain as it is occurring. Thus, researchers can make "movies" of changes in brain activity as patients perform various tasks or are exposed to various stimuli. Monitoring haemodynamic response using fMRI shows how much oxygen brain cells are using, which shows how hard the cells are working during a certain activity. Thus, fMRI is often used to see whether brain activity occurs simultaneously or sequentially in different brain regions as a patient thinks, feels, or reacts to experimental conditions. Despite the vastness of fMRI research on meditation, research on how meditation causes functional brain changes can be reduced to some degree by grouping brain areas based on the networks, affective states, and behaviors to which they typically contribute. For example, the Insula and medial anterior cingulate cortex (mACC) are part of the network that underlies pain perception and management, while medial orbital frontal cortex (mOFC), pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NAcc) are part of the network that regulates reward, pleasure, and positive affect. Likewise, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and temporoparietal junction (TPJ) have been associated with mentalizing or thinking about the mental states of others, also called Theory of Mind. Thus, meditation impacts not only just one brain area but a number of interconnected brain circuits that have a role in regulating our attention, emotion, and self-awareness.

Even just minutes of meditation have lasting impacts!

Although many studies on the neuroscience of meditation have used samples of individuals with decades of meditation experience, research has shown that even naive mediators who just practice 10 minutes a day can lead to significant improvements in wellbeing. Given the implications of meditation promoting intra- and interpersonal flourishing, acting as a protective barrier against pathologies (e.g., anxiety, depression), and preventing burnout especially for individuals in arduous environments, there has never been a better time to start a meditation practice not just for its implications on mental health but to maintain a healthy brain!

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