I realized something the other day. I talk a lot about meditation and that it’s really good for you.
But I haven’t really talked much about how it works, the science behind it, and exactly why it’s such a good thing for you.
I know that mindfulness meditation is having something of a renaissance these days.
I love that. Meditating each day has some incredible benefits that we're going to look at.
We currently have a mental health epidemic in this country. Meditation could go a long way to helping a lot of people overcome some of the issues that they might be having.
Just like you might exercise your body, meditation is exercise for your mind. It makes your brain stronger, your mind stronger, and it makes you stronger.
In this blog post, I’m going to look at the mechanisms of change that meditation acts on inside your brain when you practice it regularly.
There is a ton of scientific research behind meditation and we’ll look at that too.
So let’s get started.
What is Meditation?
If you’ve never tried meditation, you might assume that it’s just sitting around in the dark with your eyes closed.
While that is part of it, there is more to it and that’s where the magic is.
First of all, there are a wide variety of styles or types of meditation.
Transcendental meditation is one that is already very popular with celebrities, especially actors and actresses in Hollywood.
Another form of meditation that is very popular is Mindfulness Meditation.
For me, Mindfulness is the easiest to start practicing right away.
Here’s how it works.
Basically, you find a comfortable way to sit on the ground in a quiet, still place.
Then you just remain still and try to focus on (be mindful of) your breath. You can close your eyes if you want to, but you don’t have to.
When thoughts come (as they always do) you gently sweep them out of the way and go back to focusing on your breath.
I don’t want to go too far into how to meditate. This is a very good guide to get started.
But I wanted to establish what we’re talking about when we discuss meditation.
The Benefits of Meditation
So let me tell you all of the benefits you get from meditating first. Then I’ll show you how it does all this.
Health Benefits of Meditation
First, meditation isn’t just good for your brain. It’s also super beneficial to the rest of your body as well.
Reduces inflammation - Stress causes inflammation by releasing this stuff called cortisol. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and reduce cortisol levels, thus relieving inflammation.
Reduces pain sensation - Meditation has also been shown to increase pain tolerance and the sensation of pain. It didn’t make the source of chronic pain go away, but it allowed victims of pain to deal with it better.
Increases your immune system - A study out of Ohio State showed that meditation increased levels of lymphocytes, which are killer immune cells, and increased resistance to viruses and tumors.
Reduce blood pressure - Meditation has been shown repeatedly to reduce blood pressure. We think this is because of the relaxation of the blood vessels and the “fight or flight” instinct.
Improves sleep - Sleep is an area of my life that I could improve upon. Meditation is key to my success in that area. People who meditate can fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer in part because it helps you control those crazy thoughts that can come up when you lay down.
Emotional Benefits of Meditation
Increases positive emotions - Meditation is shown to activate and “light up” the areas of the brain associated with positive emotions.
Decreases depression as much as medication - Studies have shown that meditating has the same amount of effect against depression as prescribed medications.
Decreases anxiety - By decreasing cortisol (like I mentioned above) meditation also reduces anxiety. It also reduces the brain density in the areas that control anxiety and fear response (more on that later).
Boosts empathy and social connectivity - Meditation also increases activity in the part of the brain responsible for empathy, connectivity, and openness.
Boosts your self-control - Meditation is a powerful tool for many people struggling with addiction and substance abuse. It does this by teaching you how to redirect your attention, focus your thoughts, and understand the reasons behind their cravings.
Increases self-awareness - Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves they can be. Having a high degree of self-awareness is key to that. Part of meditation is shuffling through the thoughts that flood in on us. You can recognize why they’re coming to you, what you’re feeling, and the source of the emotions.
Intelligence and Productivity Benefits
Increases focus and attention - During mindfulness meditation, you have to work hard to stay focused on your breathing. Just like lifting weights, this gets easier and easier. Plus, the mental strength you develop during meditation translates into your other activities and work.
Increases memory - Meditation increases the thickness of the hippocampus, which governs memory. Studies have shown an increase in retention and memory in people who meditate.
Increases creativity - Meditation has also been shown to increase creativity and thinking outside the box.
How Meditation Changes Your Brain
So it’s obvious that meditation has lots and lots of different benefits for your entire life.
But what I want to talk about now is how meditation does all of that.
What is the mechanism that provides all of these benefits? I think what you’re about to see will blow your mind.
Meditation is actually able to rewire your brain and change the structure of it.
Ponder that for a moment: you can change how your brain is wired, how it works, what it looks like in MRI scans, and even its cellular structure…
Simply by sitting and thinking about your breathing.
That shit is crazy to me.
So let me break down what is going on inside your brain that creates these physical changes in your brain wiring that result in all the benefits we just discussed.
To do this, you need to understand four different parts of the brain.
The first is the Amygdala. This is our “flight or fight” computer. It’s highly instinctual, highly emotional. It’s very reactionary. Neurologists call this the Fear Center.
The second is the Insula. This area is where you get “gut feelings.” It determines how strongly you react to things.
These next two are more complex and are “newer” in the sense of our evolution. They are involved in higher order thinking and processing.
One is called the Lateral prefrontal cortex. This is sort of like the rational, logical processing part of the brain. This part tries to control the “fight or flight” part of our brain, the amygdala. It tries to tell the amygdala, “Hold on, is this really that big of a deal?” This is sometimes called the Assessment Center.
The second part is called the Medial prefrontal cortex. This part is all about you: it processes information about your future, when you daydream, think about yourself, what other people think about you, and how you act in social situations. Neurologists call this the Me Center.
Okay, now let me explain how these four parts interact without meditation.
Without meditation, there are lots of strong connections within the Me Center. There are also lots of strong connections between the Me Center and the Fear Center.
These strong connections mean that any sort of fear, threat, or anxiety coming from that lizard brain (the amygdala, Fear Center), gets applied to you.
It’s why we keep worrying about things we may have said or done in the past and how people think about us.
Our brains are wired in this loop of fear and how it applies to you.
Any sort of “gut feeling” we have about ourselves (from the Insula) also gets looped into a cycle of fear. We get stuck in these loops of worry about any itch, pain, or twinge in our bodies.
Meditation breaks and rewires this system.
Meditation loops in the Assessment Center (the lateral prefrontal cortex). It breaks down the connection between the Me Center, the Insula, and the Fear Center (amygdala).
Meditation strengthens the connection between the Assessment Center and those other areas.
This allows you to more rationally process all the information you’re getting from these different parts of your brain.
Any anxious thoughts about past conversations, social interactions, or bodily sensations all get looped through the Assessment Center first and processed in a more rational way.
Plus, all the helpful parts of the Me Center get strengthened.
It allows you to be more empathetic to people who are different from you and it allows you to better understand other points of view that are different from yours.
Based on what I’ve seen, I think that meditation is an incredibly valuable skill to master simply from a utilitarian and productivity standpoint.
It makes your mind faster, more efficient, and more powerful. It makes you happier and more satisfied. It also makes you more confident.
Plus, if you’re a spiritual person, you can take meditation into that realm as well.
Monks and other spiritual people have practiced meditation for centuries. We’ve studied the brains of Buddhists monks and they work differently than people who don’t meditate.
They’re more empathetic, they have less stress, and even on the cellular level, their brains are different.
Here’s my main point: meditation is clearly a tool that you should have in your arsenal.
If you are trying to move up, vibrate on a higher frequency, or accomplish more in your life, meditation is something that you should absolutely embrace.
Meditation gives you more control over how your brain works.
Without meditation, your brain just operates on its own and your thoughts are at the mercy of how your brain is wired right now.
Meditation gives you the power to re-wire your brain in a more efficient and beneficial way. It’s healthier, happier, and more useful with this discipline.
I encourage you to explore the different types of meditation and find a practice that is right for you.