Anyone who has ever attempted to meditate can vouch for the fact that while it is theoretically simple, it is extremely challenging in practice. In fact, its simplicity is what makes it difficult, and it is also what makes it worthwhile.
“Mindfulness meditation” (the practice most popular in the United States) requires a steady observation of one particular object or sensation. As we find ourselves increasingly surrounded by modern distractions and the hustle and bustle of everyday life, focusing our attention on something very basic can have indelible effects on the brain.
Let’s explore some of these effects.
It increases gyrification in the cerebral cortex — that is to say, the brain’s surface has more folds, and is therefore thicker. Mark Wheeler explains, “Presumably then, the more folding that occurs, the better the brain is at processing information, making decisions, forming memories, and so forth.” Further, researchers have drawn a positive link between the number of years someone has practiced meditation and the amount of cortical folding.
Larger amounts of grey matter are found in the orbitofrontal and hippocampal regions when compared to nonmeditating controls. These portions of the brain are related to “emotional regulation and response control.” As such, this could help explain and contribute to the balanced, rational, and resilient demeanor of many meditation practitioners. Further, it allows one to see his- or herself in a more objective light, sans bias.
Neural connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the insula/amygdala begin to diminish. In layman’s terms, this means that one is less likely to associate “gut feelings” and inappropriate fear-based responses with catastrophic ideas of self; ultimately, it can explain the ostensible decrease in anxiety in those who meditate.
On the other side of the coin, neural connections between the lateral prefrontal cortex and the insula/amygdala are strengthened. Again, this allows one to have a more logical and collected response to pain or discomfort. As Dr. Rebecca Gladding clarifies, “… When you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.”
Researchers suggest that frequent meditators have the ability to control cortical alpha rhythms. In other words, they can more easily devote their attention away from physical and emotional pain.
As the evidence above proves, a consistent meditation practice can foment beneficial alterations in brain structure and functioning — and this list doesn’t even begin to touch on all of the other health benefits for your body, your spiritual well-being, and your interpersonal relationships.
Do you have an active meditation practice? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences below!