How meditation works - the science behind the practice

New to meditation? For context and background, you may want to read the Benefits of Meditation first, then move onto this piece. 

 

Far from woo-woo

how meditation works Maybe your uncle Harry thinks meditation is a bogus ritual reserved for hippies and natural enthusiasts alike, but he couldn’t be more wrong. Harvard Medical School along with other researchers and medical professionals have found undeniable evidence that suggests regular meditation can improve the capabilities of the brain, by changing its structure.1,2,3,4 

So what’s the deal? Well, It’s not hard to believe that meditation calms the nervous system down, and revitalizes your physical and mental body, 1,2,3 yet the real magic happens in the brain. Studies have shown regular meditation practice can actually change the brain’s physical structure, so much so that the difference actually shows up in MR and MRI photos.1,2,3,4 

 

the proof is in the gray matter

how meditation works

Gray matter is neural tissue in brain that serves to process information.5 Increased gray matter normally results in the processing of information at a more rapid and robust rate.3 More gray matter = healthier and superior brain. So, if you’re thinking of a less theatrical version of Bradley Cooper in Limitless, you’re on the right track. In fact the regions of increased gray matter will correlate with the health benefits.6 

For example if your brain structure changes over the course of your meditation practice, and gray matter grows in the frontal lobe which is responsible for planning and problem solving,7 it’s not a stretch to say you will obtain improved abilities when it comes to that cognitive skill set. Because we all have different brains based on the ways we’ve exercised it,3 we will each experience slightly different structural benefits from meditation. It’s like any other skill, it’s strange and difficult at the beginning, but with consistent practice, your brain will adapt and it will become easier and more rewarding each time you sit to meditate.

Just as your body would build new muscle to adapt when exercising, your brain builds gray matter.3 So, don’t lose hope!

 

long term, post meditation benefits

How meditation worksStudies suggest practicing meditation can improve your overall quality of life as well as exponentially help a number of symptoms.1 This is partially due to the psychological benefits and heightened brain activity that takes place long after the meditation practice is done.4 This can be compared to the ‘afterburn effect’ when exercising. Even when the workout is done, your body still has to perform recovery tasks and continues to burn calories while doing so.8 The same can be said about meditation. Your brain is still building gray matter even after you get off your meditation cushion.4 You’ve trained your brain in a different way, and therefore it’s working to understand how it can improve upon the said task, which in this case is meditation. This is why you will often hear people say how frustrating or difficult their meditation journey was at the beginning; as mentioned in this blogpost. Remarkably, our brain adapts which improves your focus and practice over time.2 

 

8 weeks is all it takes

In the popular 8 week study conducted by Harvard Medical School, it’s shown that roughly 2 months of regular practice, is enough to enhance your cognitive abilities.1,2 Of course, results will vary due to our genetic differences, but for those seeking the benefits, 8 weeks seems like a friendly commitment. 

Maybe even friendly enough for uncle Harry to try? 

 

 

 

References: 

1 news.harvard.edu

2 hms.harvard.edu

3 www.mindful.org

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

www.news-medical.net

6 www.psypost.org

serendip.brynmawr.edu

www.muscleforlife.com

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

10 www.hydroassoc.org