6 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Affects Your Brain (In a Good Way)

 Photo by  Angelo Pantazis  on  Unsplash

Meditation is good for you AND there is scientific evidence to prove it. 

Research into the effects of meditation have repeatedly found that it can alleviate anxiety, depression, pain and many other physical and emotional difficulties. More recently, the research has started to explain how and why these positive effects occur.

The reason? Meditation changes the way our brain processes information, the way it communicates information between different areas in the brain AND most amazingly creates change in the STRUCTURE OF THE BRAIN! This means that the positive effects noticed during and after meditation carry over into everyday life if meditation becomes part of your daily activities. 

The most fascinating thing about it is (at least for me) that different kinds of meditation alter different brain structures. Here I will report some of the structural changes related to mindfulness meditation  - the one where you pay attention to your breath and the present moment. I will discuss the other effects in future posts. Click here for an example of this kind of meditation. 

Mindfulness meditation causes:

1. GROWTH in the prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-level thinking processes (read: the more complicated stuff). For example, we need it to be activated if we want to pay sustained attention to a task, if we need to make complex decisions and/or change our behaviour (remember the previous posts about this?). It is also important for regulating our emotions. 

One way that the prefrontal cortex does these important tasks is by enhancing goal-directed activations in the brain and inhibiting less important activations (the stuff that tries to distract you). Therefore increased volume in this area means we should become better at selectively focusing and sustaining our attention, making all subsequent tasks easier... What a win!

2. SHRINKAGE in the amygdala

The amygdala is the part of the brain considered to be the epicentre of the Fight-or-Flight response. Activation of this area is linked to the physical and emotional symptoms we feel in our bodies (read more about this here) during stress, fear, frustration etc. 

Reduction in the volume of this brain area means that it cannot be as active as it was at its larger size. This may be one of the main reasons mindful meditation decreases anxiety, fear and stress. Great news, reduction in size was seen after only 8 weeks of a mindfulness-based stress-reduction course (an average of 27 minutes of mindfulness practice was completed per day). This means you don't have to be doing this exercise for long before those effects are seen!

3. GROWTH in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)

The TPJ is the the area associated with empathy, compassion and perspective taking. The PCC is the area of the brain associated with mind wandering, and self relevance. Combined, growth in both of these areas mean that we are better able to focus on ourselves, and on others. It means we are better able to offer empathy and compassion to both.

I would say these are the skills this world needs the most right now... It's a shame meditation isn't mandatory for politicians! 

4. GROWTH in the pons

The pons is an area associated with the production of some of your regulatory neurotransmitters (read: chemicals that are used to communicate and activate or deactivate parts of our brain). Growth has been seen in this area after mindfulness practice in subjects across the life span.

Increased growth of this area is suggested to improve our ability to remain centred (through regulation of brain processes and creation of some of the chemicals the brain needs to function properly), improve our mood (through production of feel good hormones such as serotonin) AND our sleep (through production of the sleep hormone melatonin).

5. GROWTH in the hippocampus

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is associated with learning, memory and emotional regulation. Similar to the findings above, increased thickness in this area would suggest increased abilities in each of these three areas.

6. Preservation of cortical matter as you age!

I realise I made that title huge. I just think this is so important! 

Ageing causes the brain to shrink. This is just a fact. Yet, neuroimaging studies looking at the brains of non-meditators and 'expert' meditators have shown that people who meditate retain higher levels of cortical matter (read: more brain cells!) in older age. 

In fact, one study found that the amount of cortical matter found in one area of the frontal lobe of 40-50 year old meditators was similar to that seen in 20-30 year old meditators and non-meditators. 

This suggests that meditation slows age-related cortical thinning. For me, this is the single most important reason to get meditating. It is an investment in the future preservation of my brain, the thing I rely on every second of every day! 

Words of warning

We have to be careful when looking at the neuroscientific literature on mindfulness. Why? Because many studies have small sample sizes, use different mindful meditation practices, and access change over different timescales. This means the findings may not be generalisable to the real world, they may be specific to those populations and those techniques.

The findings reported here need to be replicated in much larger trials before we can be certain that these are the neural underpinnings (bits going on in the brain) that explain the changes we see and feel in our lives. However, the findings seem promising. 

Get mindful! Start now!

The majority of the studies mentioned above were carried out with people asked to undertake 8 weeks of mindful meditation. Only one study I reported here looked at people considered expert meditators (people who have meditated for more than 10,000 hours). 

This means that reorganisation of brain structures arise quickly once you start practicing mindfulness. Most recently a paper was published that showed structural change may occur within 2 weeks of starting daily practice.  

So... off you go! It's time to get started! 

P.s. if you don't know where to start, head to my Instagram feed where I frequently post 60 second mindfulness exercises. Remember, when you start a new habit the frequency with which you practice is more important than the duration! 

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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online (over video link).

Contact me now for your free 20 minute consultation to see whether therapy with me is the right choice for you!

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Sophie Mort