What Does Meditation Do for the Brain?
With more and more research surfacing about meditation and its effects on our physiology, it’s no wonder that the practice of meditation has more than tripled in the U.S. since 2012.1 Meditation changes the brain’s function and even its structure in some ways. To understand how meditation changes the brain, it’s helpful to review the research as well as the Vedic Worldview perspective on meditation and the brain.
Physical changes in the brain
When the brain grows, it creates more surface area. The more surface area the brain has (or ‘cortical surface’), the more cognitive functionality it will have. This is why our brains have odd folds and lines that look like wrinkles or tubing.
Gyrification is “The process by which the brain undergoes changes in surface morphology to create sulcal and gyral regions.2 Simply put, Gyrification is when the surface area of the brain grows.
In one study conducted in 2012, “researchers compared brain images from 50 adults who meditate and 50 adults who don’t meditate. Results suggested that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information.3”
Something about meditation works on areas of the brain that are not usually in use, causing the brain to physically grow. This is a very slow process. It may seem odd that the brain structure would grow while a meditator is either relaxing or concentrating on slowing down thought… but the very practice of observing the mind seems to affect its physiology.
Meditation and the aging brain
One study from UCLA showed that not only can meditation increase the surface area of the brain, but it can help to slow the loss of brain function and gray matter with age. The study showed that long-term meditators who had been practicing for twenty years or more showed far less loss of gray matter than those of the same age who had not been meditating.4
Older meditators did not show more gray matter than young people and especially younger meditators, but the important finding is that meditation seemed to slow the brain’s deterioration over time.
Though our brains peak in development in our mid-twenties and deteriorate from there, we don’t have to succumb to losing gray matter. With meditation, we can slow the process and keep our brains functioning optimally.
Meditation for less mental chatter
You may have heard meditators you know say that they experience less mental chatter or ‘monkey mind’ after consistently meditating. One of the lesser-known meditation effects on brain functioning is the physiological changes that result in less mental chatter.
In one study conducted through Yale University, it was found that meditation can reduce activity in the part of the brain related to mental chatter.5 There is an area of the brain called the default-mode network (DMN), which correlates with our attention, mind-wandering, and self-referential thoughts. According to the research, meditation affected this part of the brain.
How does this relate to our well-being?
When we slow the activity in the part of our brains that causes ‘overthinking,’ ‘overanalyzing,’ or excessive processing, we can feel more present and less distracted or worried. Meditators are not only less likely to lapse into mental chatter, but they are also more able to bring themselves back to the present moment and ‘snap out of it quickly. The physiological effects of meditation on the brain can result in greater self-mastery and presence.
Meditation and memory
Our brains have multiple centers, or areas that process a certain kind of information. In one study, an area of the brain involved in emotional regulation and introspective processing was shown to respond positively when a person underwent 8 weeks of meditation training. The hippocampus area of their brains became thicker, which affects memory, learning, and emotional processing.6
The same study found that the amygdala shrank slightly through the 8-week meditation program. The amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, or the fear and stress that can take over our emotions. This suggests that a consistent meditator would likely respond differently to stressors over time, moving from ‘triggerable’ and reactive (or sensitive to stressors), to resilient, calm, and stable in the face of stress.
Meditation and focus
Have you ever experienced the sense of being under pressure, and taking a moment to ‘collect yourself’? Those brief moments to turn inward feel calming for a reason. In one study covering the effects of meditation on test-takers, those who had trained in meditation for only two weeks prior to their GRE exam scored an average of 16 percentile points higher8 than those who had not been meditating.
Rather than feeling distracted by worries, mind wandering, or forgetting information, the students had more attention to apply to the task at hand.
Meditation for children and teens
Though it may seem impossible to ask a child to sit still for long enough to meditate, there have been multiple studies showing that they are able and greatly benefit from starting meditation at a young age. Studies have shown that meditation may have greater results on kids’ brains– or on brains that are still developing– than for those over the age of 25.
When schoolchildren practice meditation as a part of their daily instruction, they see positive results: “One district in San Francisco started a twice-daily meditation program in some of its high-risk schools – and saw suspensions decrease, and GPAs and attendance increase,”9
One study in Italy worked with 16 healthy children who underwent an 8-week meditation training program, and 15 children of the same age (7-8 years old) who took an emotional awareness program. The children who practiced meditation showed improved focus and positive results in their psychological wellbeing.10
Meditation and depression or anxiety
Many people who learn to meditate seek relief from anxiety or depression symptoms, or overall improvement in their mental health. The good news is that meditation seems to affect the brain in the areas that moderate chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with these conditions.
One study from Johns Hopkins University showed that meditation may be as capable of reducing anxiety and depression symptoms as some medications.11 Of course, meditation is not intended to replace medications or doctor’s recommendations. It can be a useful way to affect mental patterns that relate to anxiety and depression.
Brain waves during meditation
How do we know that meditation affects the brain when so many other factors could be at play? Researchers will connect meditators to an Electroencephalography machine, or an EEG machine. These machines record the electrical activity in the brain during a period of time and can compare brain activity in a person while they are meditating and while they are in their regular waking state.
Interestingly, different forms of meditation show activity (or lack of activity) in different parts of the brain.12 The unique electrical activity in the brain works like a muscular workout: the more you use part of your brain, the stronger and faster it becomes. Different meditation styles will ‘strengthen’ different mental habits and create different results, all of which correlate to the brain’s active areas during meditation.
The Vedic Worldview on Meditation and the Brain
Though scientific findings may correlate our biology to our daily rhythms and even our reported mental health, the research does not consider consciousness or the release of stress memories from the body. According to the Vedic Worldview, any positive outcomes that can be traced in the brain would stem from encounters with the thought-less state we can reach when meditating with a Bija mantra.
The Bija mantra brings the mind to a quieter and quieter place, without any concentration, force, or focus. In fact, the only way that the mind can settle down into a thoughtless, deeply restful state is through effortlessness. The quieter the mantra and the mind become, the more deeply the body rests, and the closer the mind comes to experiencing pure consciousness.
In those moments of thoughtless contact with pure Being, or Universal consciousness, the mind is deeply satiated and the body is relaxed enough to release stress memories from anywhere in our physical timeline. As a result, those symptoms that come from stress in the body would naturally begin to ease. Symptoms like anxiety, depression, racing thoughts, and lack of focus would become less prevalent as our brains are triggered by fewer and less stressful memories.
The nature of the mind to seek happiness
Our brain has an evolutionary superpower to direct us toward greater happiness and safety. All of the thousands of thoughts that arise in our minds each day are meant to lead us to be happier. Often, our thoughts are consumed by figuring out why we are not happy: where did this pain come from, how to solve this problem, or how to prevent this uncomfortable situation.
The more we meditate with our Bija mantra, the more we are able to bathe our minds in the experience of thoughtlessness. Thoughtlessness is the place where our brains can experience pure consciousness, and in that place, the search for happiness is over. Our minds have reached the bliss state of ceasing to search and think about happiness, and instead, experiencing it fully.
Slowly, as we meditate for 20 minutes twice each day, we’ll discover that the experience of thoughtlessness and pure consciousness begins to influence our regular waking thought life. The mind feels less pressured to seek happiness, and stress has less power to awaken our fight-or-flight states. The brain is changing to become more present and content, and less survival-seeking.
Bliss chemicals and the brain
One way to think about the brain before and after meditation is to think about how our consciousness state creates our mental and physiological state. Our consciousness state creates the state of our brain and body since the brain releases neurotransmitters that will create in the body the state of our consciousness.
When you have a stressful thought, your body changes to feel and process that sensation of stress. The thoughts and emotions going on with you create a chemical cocktail to match in the body: anger leads to anger chemicals in the body, fear leads to fear chemicals in the body, and so on. So, if you’re feeling stressed before a meditation, then after your relaxing meditation your brain and body will be flooded with different chemicals than before the meditation.
When the brain experiences bliss, the body receives a flood of bliss chemicals. These chemicals are known as anandamide.
Ananda is a Sanskrit word for bliss, and the word anandamide describes a particular cocktail of chemicals that feel blissful. Serotonin and dopamine are a part of that cocktail. These chemicals arise when the brain and then take the body from fight-or-flight and stress response to presence, ease, and adaptability.
With meditation, we can help our consciousness to feel happy and relaxed, so our bodies and brains can then feel the same thing?
Vedic Meditation releases stress and brings the mind in contact with the blissful, thoughtless state of the unified field. This means that with each meditation sitting, your body gets a ‘printout’ of bliss consciousness as the mind encounters stillness.
Less stress, less work for the brain
We know that stress has a negative effect on every system of the body. When someone goes through a stressful period, they can be said to visibly age many years. Imagine what happens to a body when stress is removed: the brain and body are under less consistent strain and can self-repair more easily. There is a better balance of chemicals and hormones, rather than an overabundance of cortisol and stress chemicals.
When we allow our bodies to rest and release stress, we give our brains the opportunity to rejuvenate and function properly. As the Maharishi would say, our level of stress brings our brains to a mere 2% of their ability to function… compared to the 100% we could be using if we cleared all of that stress away.
Meditation and your brain
The best way to understand how meditation affects the brain is to experience it yourself. When you take the Learn to Meditate course, you’ll receive a Bija mantra from a qualified instructor. The instructor will show you why the mantra works with the brain’s natural functioning to effortlessly draw your awareness beyond thought and release stress from the body.