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Meditation for a Bigger, Better Brain

Our brains are getting some great benefits from meditation. We can see evidence of this now through fMRI or EEG imaging that shows exactly how the brain and our psychology is altered with as little as seven weeks of consistent meditation. Since the brain is one of the most powerful machines ever created—stunning even experts in artificial intelligence—we can use the age-old practice of meditation to boost the efficiency of that three-and-a-half-pound supercomputer running more than 100 billion neurons every second. It really is true that a calm, mindfulness habit can create a bigger and better brain.


Meditation Induces Whole Brain Thinking

The left hemisphere of the brain packs almost 200 million more neurons than the right hemisphere, but meditation helps to promote whole brain thinking.  Sixty percent of people in the world are controlled by a dominant left brain, but the right brain is where our feelings of joy and our ability to solve problems creatively originate. Intuitive abilities, interacting with others and acting from a positive perspective, are all important tasks of the right brain, too. Meditation is known to increase neuroplasticity, which basically means you can think about things from a number of perspectives. In a study titled Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Brain, researchers found that depending on the type of meditation practiced, practitioners experienced,

“. . .in patterns of brain function assessed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), changes in the cortical evoked response to visual stimuli that reflect the impact of meditation on attention, and alterations in amplitude and synchrony of high frequency oscillations that probably play an important role in connectivity among widespread circuitry in the brain.”


Mediation Grows the Grey Matter of the Brain

If increased neuroplasticity isn’t good enough to convince you to meditate a little more often, consider this: sitting just a few times a week can actually make your brain bigger. After just 22.6 hours of meditative practice, researchers documented an increase in the grey matter in the left hippocampus of the brain. This was documented with high resolution MRI imaging. Three additional areas also experienced grey matter growth, as detailed by the study,

“Exploratory analysis of the entire brain (paired t-test in SPM5) revealed four clusters with significantly greater gray matter concentration at the Post compared to the Pre time-point in the MBSR group. One cluster was located in the posterior cingulate cortex, one in the left temporo-parietal junction, and two clusters were located in the cerebellum.”


Meditation Affects the White Matter of the Brain

White matter (which makes up the other 60% of the brain) gets its color from myelin, which insulates axons and increases the speed at which electrical impulses travel.

Preliminary data suggests that changes in the white matter of the brain induced by a meditative practice results in greater connectivity between neuronal axis, and the reduction in loss of memory, while increasing mindfulness.

Meditators recruited for a study in Germany from Zen and Buddhist meditation centers were subjected to regular meditation and then watched for changes in their brains. Researchers found decreased markers for advanced aging, as well as other concrete changes in the brain,

“Our results suggest that the regular and prolonged practice of MM may have an impact on the structure of WM fibers adjacent to the thalamus due to the increased activation of this region during meditation. Among other functions the thalamus is considered to play a part in relaying sensory information to the cerebral cortex. This appears to be consistent with the fact that the practice of MM places a particular focus on moment to moment sensory perception although whether the MM practitioner actually increases sensory sensitivity during meditation needs to be objectively measured. Our findings therefore support previous studies such as (Luders et al., 2009) that reported an increased GM in this region and (Newberg et al., 2001, 2010) in which a significant increase in regional cerebral blood flow was observed in the thalamus.”


Compassion Meditation Increases Our Ability to Empathize

Another benefit of meditation, also documented with fRMI imaging of the brain, is the ability to empathize with others. Meditation or cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT) for participants in one study showed that not only did people experience decreased inflammation, but the areas of the brain known to aggravate a negative emotional response quitted down. People also responded better to others’ emotional cues. The scientists involved in the study describe their fascinating results:

“Across all subjects at the baseline evaluation, the contrast between the emotion and gender tasks revealed a main effect in brain regions previously identified as important for inferring the emotions of others based on their facial expression. In particular, bilateral temporal poles and IFG, right anterior STS, left posterior STS, the dmPFC, including the anterior paracingulate cortex, and the left amygdala were more active during the emotion task than the gender task. In a whole-brain analysis (P < 0.001), there were no regions identified that significantly covaried with empathic accuracy scores.”


Meditation Allows Us to See Things as They Really Are; Translation: Increased Activity in the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex

Most of us spend our lives reacting to life from a set of outdated beliefs and knee-jerk reactions that were formed long ago. With a little meditation, the prefrontal cortex is stimulated. This means that instead of getting bogged down in habits that no longer serve our best good and continued growth, meditation unlocks the “assessment center” which helps us override emotional triggers. 

Without meditation, the brain gets stuck on a me-me-me cycle.  This can make relationships more challenging, and even reaching our goals nearly impossible.  With meditation, though, the prefrontal cortex is stimulated to allow a wider view of the world and our place in it.  


Meditation Can inhibit Pain by Reducing Activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Insula, Secondary Somatosensory Cortex and Thalamus

Meditation can even inhibit our perception of pain? As a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology explains,

“Pain is a conscious experience, an interpretation of the nociceptive input influenced by memories, as well as emotional, pathological, genetic, and cognitive factors (Tracey and Mantyh, 2007). Thus, the central nervous system in the human brain possesses complex pain-related neural networks, involving sensory-discriminative, affective-motivational, and cognitive-evaluative components, at least partially dissociable in terms of the underlying neural networks (Apkarian et al., 2005; Grant et al., 2011). Neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies provided evidence for these neural networks, which include multiple brain regions often referred to as the ‘pain matrix’.”

But check this out. Meditation helps to cure a host of painful experiences, ranging from the physical to the emotional. Conclusively it has been proven through studies conducted over the last three decades, that meditation has many many ameliorative effects on the symptoms of disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain, along with improving our well-being and quality of life. Researchers attribute meditation to mainly attenuating the medial system of pain perception including brain regions in the ACC and insula, as well as the lateral system in the SII and thalamus.


With all these mind-blowing effects from meditation, you’re going to want to add it to your list of regular practices. Profound positive results will ensue.