It wasn't that long ago that scientists believed that our brains were fixed at about the age of three, and that they didn't alter over time, except to deteriorate.
In the last ten to fifteen years, however, the scientific literature has been exploding with evidence that this idea was completely wrong. The concept of neuroplasticity has emerged as we've learned how our brains change in response to stimuli - both positive and negative.
We don't fully understand how neuroplasticity works, but it is clear that our habits profoundly affect the structure and health of our brains. As our actions stimulate different parts of the brain, the connections related to these areas get stronger. In some ways, it is similar to how our muscles respond when we work out. If we exercise the parts of our brain linked to positive experiences like calm and gratitude, that changes our lives for the better. On the other hand if we exercise the parts of our brain linked to negative experiences like fear and anger, that diminishes the quality of our lives.
The ancient practice of meditation has emerged as an exciting and effective way to promote brain health. Given what we know about neuroplasticity, it makes sense that practices which cultivate calm, non-judgemental attention could be beneficial, and might help counteract the constant stress reactions so common to modern life. Research is bearing this out.
Although meditation has often been associated with spiritual traditions, we have learned that its core elements can be practiced by anyone. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of Medicine at Massachusetts Medical School, developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as a way to pass along these time-proven techniques in a form that was accessible to the general public.
Here are a few of the exciting ways that meditation has been shown to strengthen your brain:
1) Longterm meditation increases the thickness of the brain - A 2005 study found that experienced meditators had greater thickness in areas of the brain that are important for processing sensations, thoughts and emotions when compared to their non-meditating counterparts.
2) Even short-term meditators demonstrate positive brain changes - A 2011 study found that an eight-week mindfulness training program changed results of brains scans including increased gray-matter density of the hippocampus (associated with memory and learning) and structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection along with decreases in gray-matter density in the amygdala (associated with stress and anxiety).
3) Meditation alters specific brain regions associated with significant functions - A 2014 analysis of multiple studies confirmed that meditation was consistently associated with structural changes in eight distinct areas of the brain. These areas are important to the following abilities:
- The ability to be aware that you are having an experience as distinct from the experience itself (Meta-awareness)
- The ability to be aware of stimuli coming from inside or outside your body (Interoceptive and Exteroceptive and Body Awareness )
- The ability to stabilize and re-stabilize memories after you acquire them (Memory consolidation and reconsolidation)
- The ability to regulate your attention or emotion in a given situation (Self and emotional regulation)
- The ability to have a broad, strong array of brain connections, a characteristic that may relate to creativity (Intra- and interhemispheric communication)
4) Meditation may help keep the brain young - A 2015 study showed that meditation may have a brain-protective effect and that the brains of experienced meditators have less atrophy than their non-meditating counterparts.
5) Meditation reduces inflammation - Studies have confirmed that meditation reduces various markers of stress including reducing the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as genes and blood markers related to inflammation. Since we know that stress and inflammation are bad for our brains as well as the rest of our bodies, this is great news for brain health!
Here's some more information about how stress affects the brain.
Mindfulness meditation is a core tool in my work helping people to live well, on purpose, and I recommend it to anyone who wants a simple way to improve their life experience. You can find more about mindfulness on my resources page, and in my free wellness guide.
What about you? Have you tried meditation? Please share your experiences in the comments below