The effects of meditation on the body and mind have been studied thoroughly. One of the most directly observed effects is that meditation changes brain waves to a comfortable, stable pattern. “Brain waves” refers to the electrical current that develops when signals are transmitted between neurons. It’s an important index for measuring the state of brain activity.
When you’re normally awake and active, beta waves of 13 to 30 Hz (cycles per second) form the bulk of your brain waves. These are commonly called “stress waves” because they frequently appear when you’re worried or thinking a lot. When you’re resting physically and mentally, or when you have pleasant feelings and your mind is at ease, your brain emits alpha waves of 8 to 12 Hz. Right before you fall asleep, or when you’re in a state of light sleep, theta waves of 4 to 7 Hz appear. When theta waves predominate, you experience deep insight; creative thoughts or ideas for solving problems pour from your mind. Delta waves of 1 to 3 Hz appear in deep sleep, deep meditative states, or unconscious states.
In the meditating brain, brain waves gradually change to alpha or theta waves. The slower your brain waves, the more relaxed you are, the more you feel a sense of carefree satisfaction, and the more your mind is at peace. What part of your brain is activated when you meditate? Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, a pioneer in the study of mind-body medicine, used PET (positron emission tomography) scans to demonstrate that the left prefrontal cortices of a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks were activated when the monks were in deep meditation. This is particularly interesting, because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for feelings of contentment and joy. In addition, Dr. Davidson has identified interactions between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, a key center for processing memory and emotion.
Meditation helps recover balance in the brain’s hormone secretions, too. It decreases the secretion of noradrenaline, dopamine, and cortisol, which can put you into an agitated, stressful state, while promoting the secretion of serotonin (the “happiness hormone”) and beta endorphins, which reduce pain and create pleasant feelings.
Will physical changes take place in your brain if you meditate? A research team at UCLA, led by Dr. Eileen Luders, discovered that the brains of longtime meditators are larger and function better than those of people who don’t meditate. Luders found that the meditators had more gray matter in brain regions that are important for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter typically makes a brain area more efficient and powerful for processing information. “We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior,” said Dr. Luders.
A research team headed by Dr. Sara Lazar of Harvard Medical School found that the thickness of certain parts of the brain increases, not only in those who meditate professionally — like Tibetan monks — but also in ordinary meditators. People from various professional occupations meditated for 40 minutes a day for as little as eight weeks, and then the researchers observed the results. They discovered that the subjects actually developed a thicker hippocampus (associated with memory, learning, and emotional regulation) and brain parts involved in self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Meditation actually changes the anatomy of the brain, not just a person’s mood, the study demonstrated.
Neuroscientists have also shown that meditation affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, complex thinking, and a sense of self. If you meditate, not only will you receive great mental and emotional benefits, but your body’s immunity to disease will increase. You might even live longer.
Science suggests that regular meditation can help lower our stress levels, thus increasing the length of our telomeres, the protective endcaps on our chromosomes. Shortened telomeres make us more susceptible to age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Some scientists think that telomere length may be the most important indicator of biological age and disease risk. It’s thought that if you could stop telomere shrinkage, you could avoid age-related diseases.
In the past, meditation was considered the exclusive property of those who practiced spiritual and religious disciplines. Now it has become a mainstream relaxation technique. A National Institutes of Health survey has revealed that some 20 million U.S. adults meditate for health reasons. If you really care about your brain, start meditating today.
This article is excerpted from Ilchi Lee’s “The Power Brain: Five Steps to Upgrading Your Brain Operating System.”