H(omm)ing in on Happiness: How Meditation Changes the Brain

Chances are that in the past couple of years, you’ve noticed more and more references to meditation. That guy who works in the office next to yours? He practices. So does the girl who lives down the street. Heck, even my mom is meditating! Ask someone who meditates and he or she is likely to tell you that it improves concentration and can induce lasting calmness. Or that meditating even helps control emotions and improves self-awareness.

Since meditation has been practiced as early as 1500 BCE clearly its benefits have not gone unnoticed, but what actually causes these mental and behavioral benefits? Science is uncovering that structural and neural connectivity changes in the brain may be the reason behind these benefits.

Meditation does not require amazing scenery pictured here and can be practiced in the comfort of your home. However, the environment (whether indoors or outdoors) can aid in your practice and enhance the experience.

Meditation does not require amazing scenery pictured here and can be practiced in the comfort of your home. However, the environment (whether indoors or outdoors) can aid in your practice and enhance the experience.

Contrary to popular belief, meditation does NOT mean clearing your mind of any thoughts.

Western culture has secularized various types of meditation from their Hindi, Buddhist, and Taoist origins. While there is not one steadfast definition, meditation can loosely be defined as a calming and training of the mind. This can be achieved by focusing on the breath or practicing mindfulness by being intentionally aware of external and internal stimuli, including thoughts! There are many types of meditation that you can begin to explore here and here.

Measuring with Magnets

Research over the past two decades demonstrates increasing evidence that the beneficial effects of meditation are due to changes in both brain structure and activity. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is one method used to measure these changes.

Imaging is an extremely useful research tool because it allows scientists to view internal organs, like the brain, without surgery. With imaging techniques like MRI, researchers can measure the brain’s composition of white matter and gray matter in high resolution, the latter of which is where most nervous cells communicate with one another. The comparative thickness of gray matter is interpreted as an indicator of neuroplasticity, or changes in nervous cell connections in the brain.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows researchers to observe brain activity by measuring changes in blood oxygen levels. Based on the principle that cells require more oxygen when they’re more active, an increase in blood oxygenation indicates areas of increased brain activity. Using this technique, scientists can study altered firing patterns (connectivity networks) among brain regions and provide evidence like this 2012 study for cognitive changes that were previously only self-reported from meditation practitioners.

fMRI of my friend’s brain showing the brain activation sites for tapping her right (blue) and left (yellow) fingers.

fMRI of my friend’s brain showing the brain activation sites for tapping her right (blue) and left (yellow) fingers.

Mind over Matter. Literally.

This 2011 paper used MRI to test if meditation and related activities performed roughly 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks produced changes in brain gray matter density. Compared to the control subjects who did not receive meditative instruction, test subjects that did reported increased mindfulness and displayed altered gray matter density in certain brain regions compared to the control.

Researchers found decreased gray matter in the amygdala, a brain region active in fear and stress. They also found increased gray matter in the left hippocampus which plays a role in memory, learning, and emotional control as well as the posterior cingulate cortex which is involved in self-relevance. Increased gray matter was also observed in tempero parietal junction and the pons which participate in compassion and perception formation as well as stress regulation, respectively. Thanks to similar recent studies, the cliché “mind over matter” is taking on a whole new literal meaning.

Mind, Body, and Treatment

But what exactly is initiating these changes? Some research suggests that the synchronization of the breath with the heart rate, often part of meditative techniques, can cause physiological changes at the cellular level. These changes may affect a nervous cell’s potential for signaling in certain regions of the brain such as the amygdala, which play a role in regulating mood and anxiety.

Meditation is not limited to the granola-loving yogi.  Scientists are exploring meditation as supplemental treatment options for anxiety disorders, depression, pain management, and addiction disorders with promising early results.

Even just meditating 30 minutes a day can increase concentration, improve awareness and decision making, and decrease stress among other physical benefits still under investigation. Further research is required to determine if these effects are still generated from shorter meditative sessions so those EXTREMELY busy people can still profit.

With so many benefits from some intentional “me time,” won’t you graciously allow your busy self a few minutes a day to improve your health?

About the Author

Leah Caplan is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. This summer, she moved to Boston for a research position at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. While this southern belle is a bit far from home, she still takes pride in the Bulldawg Nation and remains steadfast in her liberal use of the word “y’all.” Check out some more blogs from Leah Caplan!