Meditation: Change Your Brain Literally!
The Neuroscience of Meditation
If you learned of one simple activity that could deliver a host of cognitive benefits, including lowering stress levels, counteracting age-associated loss of brain cells, and improving your ability to pay attention, remember and making decisions; wouldn’t you be eager to take advantage of it? Well, increasingly, research is providing evidence that meditation is just such an activity.
Meditation: Definition and Types
The term meditation describes a variety of techniques that involve quieting the mind and relaxing the body by focusing attention on an object, word, or sensation and ignoring interrupting thoughts. There are many types of meditation – such as mindfulness meditation, insight meditation, and transcendental meditation, to name a few. All types of meditation involves regular sessions – ideally in 20 minutes or more each day – in which you spend uninterrupted time calmly becoming aware of your thoughts and distancing yourself from those thoughts. Initially you’ll notice the voice of those thoughts in your head, but you work to detach from it and not to react to it. Just focus on breathing process, brief prayer, or your physical sensations. The process has been aptly described as “thinking about not thinking”.
Which Technique to Follow
A 12-minute form of meditation known as “Kirtan Kriya” technique has been associated with improved memory in older adults who experience memory problems. The technique involves the following steps:
- Sit quietly and comfortably with hands resting, palms up, on your lap.
- Say out loud the four syllables SA, TA, NA, and MA. As you say ‘SA’, touch your index finger to your thumb; with ‘TA’, touch your middle finger to thumb; with ‘NA’, touch your index finger to thumb; and with ‘MA’, touch your little finger to thumb. (According to Hindu Spiritualism the four primal sounds are believed to stand for: SA – infinity, cosmos, beginning; TA – life, existence; NA – death; and MA – rebirth.)
- Perform this sequence repeatedly for two minutes, saying the syllables out loud, then repeat the sequence for another two minutes while whispering the syllables.
- Next, perform the sequence silently for four minutes.
- Whisper the sequence once again for two minutes, and end by saying the syllables out loud for a final two minutes.
- Remain relaxed and seated for a moment before resuming your normal activities.
Meditation: Cognitive Effects
Reduces stress: Several researches has suggested that meditation can help diminish a person’s susceptibility and responsiveness to stress, lower levels of stress hormone ‘cortisol’, and reduce tension and anxiety. Regular practice of meditation can improve mental and thereby physical health, mood, and cognitive functioning. For example, a study in the journal ‘Emotion’ suggests that meditation can protect the brain from the negative effects of stress.
Protects memory: Results of a small study of 15 older adults with memory problems suggest that daily 12-minute meditation sessions over a period of eight weeks can improve overall memory function. The participants experienced increased blood flow to brain regions involved in memory retrieval and improved their scores on tests of general memory, attention, and cognition.
Increases pain tolerance: A program of 20 minutes of meditation daily for just three days helped a small group of volunteers to reduce significantly their sensitivity to pain of mild electric shocks even when they were not meditating. The authors of the study, which was published in the ‘Journal of Pain’, theorize that meditation helps lessen emotional responses to pain (for example, anxiety) and reduces the effects of memories of past pain and anticipation of future pain by helping people concentrate on the present.
Improves ability to focus: A number of studies suggest that regular meditation can improve the ability to pay attention. In one study – published in the journal ‘Conscious Cognition’ – a comparison of meditators with non-meditators showed that meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, including the ability to ignore distractions.
Meditation: Changes in the Brain
Meditation appears to have direct influences on the structure and activities of brain. Research says that twice-daily sessions of meditation over an eight week period can cause physical changes in the brains of people who are chronically stressed.
At the outset of the study, brain scans of study participants with chronic stress showed that a region of the brain called the ‘amygdala’, which is activated by emotional arousal, appeared denser than individuals who are not overly stressed. Following eight weeks of meditation, participants reported significantly reduced feelings of stress, and brain scans showed a corresponding decrease in the density of gray matter in the amygdala.
According to researches, regular meditation causes thickening of brain’s prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, regions that are associated with decision making, attention, memory, and sensory processing. Since those regions of the brain normally become thin with age, the findings suggest that meditation may be an effective strategy for slowing the aging process by building up these brain areas and strengthening memory and attention abilities that decline as people age.
Meditation also affects the way the brain functions, scientists have found. A study published in the ‘Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine’ found significant differences in brain wave activity between people who were engaged in meditation and those who simply rested. Brain waves – short bursts of electrical pulses produced by the transmission of signals among groups of neurons – are associated with thinking and other brain activities and can be measured with Electro-Encephalo-Graph (EEG) testing and brain scanning.
The researchers found that compared with the resting state, meditation is responsible to involve more abundant theta waves (associated with relaxed attention and alertness) across all brain regions, and especially in the frontal and temporal central areas of the brain. Meditation is also associated with more abundant alpha waves (an indication of wakeful rest in which the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks) in the posterior brain regions.
Other researches suggest that the brain’s gamma waves (associated with awareness, concentration, and consciousness) also increase as a result of meditation. Gamma waves are especially powerful and well organized in experienced meditators, who show evidence of greater gamma wave activity compared to novice meditators even when they are not meditating.