Meditation On Your Mind?
As a Psychologist, it was only a short leap from knowing nothing about meditation to getting curious about meditation and the brain. After all, reprogramming the mind in order to help people is what we do. And this is also what many claim meditation can do too.
Investigating the Effects of Meditation on the Brain
You might be aware that last year I learned to meditate. I became a bit of a zealot afterwards and had to try to curb my enthusiasm because it seemed that meditation was all I could talk about or think about!
Well, I still do my twice daily meditations (okay, at least once daily, and twice on most days), but now I am more curious about why it works so well.
So, I did some research and here is what I found.
How Meditation Changes Your Brain
Meditation and your brain are best friends. With regular meditation, the following changes in the brain can be seen:
Meditation leads to greater activity in the left pre-frontal cortex.
The left pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that takes care of rational decision-making. Increasing activity in this area can translate into more calm responses when under stress, such as when you are having an argument or feeling confronted with a dramatic situation. These are great times to be rational.
Meditation causes shrinkage in the amygdala.
The amygdala is your “fight or flight centre”. Fear lives here. It’s the primal area of your brain that interacts with the pre-frontal cortex (where higher order brain functions take place) to determine your stress response.
A shrinking amygdala can mean you experience less fear. Less fear can mean less anxiety and this can only be good. It means your brain is more likely to defer to a more thoughtful response than a primal, knee-jerk fear response, meaning you are better able to respond to stressors.
Meditation thickens the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is important for learning and memory. A thickening hippocampus corresponds to improvement in both of these important brain functions. We could argue that learning and memory abilities are vital for our entire life.
Learning and remembering are important when we are young and at school, important whenever we learn a new skill, and very important as we age. So meditation can help slow cognitive decline as you age.
Meditation increases grey matter in the brain.
Regular meditation leads to an increase in overall grey matter. Lots of grey matter in the brain might sound like a bad thing, but grey matter actually heightens the brain’s processing power and it declines as we age.
Speed of processing is a factor in intelligence. It is a bit like getting a computer upgrade so it “thinks” more quickly. Studies have shown that not only does meditation preserve grey matter in the brain, regular practice also enlarges areas of grey matter.
Meditation Is Like A Workout For Your Brain
Take note that some of these changes happen within weeks of starting mediation practice and others take some years to appear. But each time you meditate, you are training your brain into better shape – just like each workout you do gets your body into better shape.
It won’t happen overnight but it will happen!
Meditation Alters The Brain Almost Immediately
Even though many of these large meditation benefits take regular practice to manifest, some of the clear benefits of meditation happen from the first time you meditate.
The activity in your brain waves alter each time you meditate. Meditation reduces some brain waves types (the bad ones), and enhances others (the good ones).
Meditation’s Impact on Brain Waves
Beta brain waves
Beta waves are reduced during meditation. Beta waves are the ones which increase with goal-oriented behaviours and have us feeling alert but not relaxed.
Alpha brain waves
Conversely to the above, Alpha waves are increased as our brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks. Increased Alpha waves is a sign of deep relaxation.
Delta brain waves
Delta waves are characteristic of sleep. These types of waves are reduced during meditation, suggesting that the relaxed state does not mimic our sleep state.
Theta brain waves
Meditation increases Theta waves, which indicates relaxed attention. Theta waves signal to other areas of the brain to physically relax our bodies. There is some evidence to suggest that these Theta waves stay increased for up to two weeks after just one 15-minute meditation!
Gamma brain waves
Finally, we come to increased Gamma brain wave activity. Gamma waves correlate with increased awareness (mindfulness) and feelings of bliss.
Meditation’s Impact on Self-Esteem
In addition to these brain wave changes, research has shown that meditation leads to a higher congruence between your apparent self-esteem (how self-assured you say you are) and your actual self-esteem (how self-assured you actually feel). This means you are more aligned in your inner and outer worlds, and have a greater sense of “self”.
Starting Your Own Meditation Practice
So, there you have it – short-term and long-term gains from meditating. For those of us who already have a regular meditation practice, we know it makes us feel great, and I hope this encourages some others to give it a try.
If you don’t know how to get started, or need some help staying consistent, maybe you could try a meditation app (like Calm or Headspace), or see if there is a meditation challenge you can join (I am doing one for 30 days, and the day I signed up for it, I was emailed about another one!). Google “30 day meditation challenge” and take your pick!
Just like starting an exercise routine, it is important that your new meditation practice can fit with your life, so choose something that works for you.
Tips for Meditation Success
Whenever we wish to introduce a new habit to our lives, it is helpful to remove as many barriers as possible.
Set a realistic time to meditate
If you are used to waking up at 7am, you are unlikely to succeed in establishing any new habit that demands you wake up at 4am. This is also true of meditation. Choose a time that works with your lifestyle.
Set a realistic time limit for meditation
Think about how much time you can devote to meditation each day. Some apps have guided meditations that are as short at 5 minutes, which might be a good place to start.
Start small. It’s a bit like beginning with a 20-minute jog when you are commencing training for a 10km fun run. Just like with a workout, there really are no “bad” meditation sessions, so meditating for even a short time will give your brain some benefits and will make you feel better than you did before it.
Create a plan to meditate
If you were starting a new fitness routine, it would be difficult to get excited about going to the gym if you had no idea what you were going to do when you got there. The same can be said for meditation. When you sit down to begin, will you launch an app? Press play on a YouTube video? Do a body scan? Knowing how to begin is important for your success.
Be kind and drop perfectionism
After some workout sessions we feel invincible, but with others we feel a bit “meh”. You still did the workout so you still get the benefit.
Meditation is the same – you will experience some meditations that feel really “deep” and others that are less so. This is okay. You will have gains from doing it no matter what you deem the “quality” of each meditation session.
There are loads of ways to meditate, and I encourage you to explore your options and get started.