How does our brain change during meditation?
Creating new routes in our brain, awareness changes the course of our thoughts – from chaotic to more orderly and calm. Until recently, most scientists believed that the brain with which we were born is static – that is, after a certain age, the neural connections formed in the brain are unchanged, and we are doomed to continue to live with what is.
However, already ten to fifteen years ago we began to observe the opposite – the brain is created so that it continuously changes depending on external conditions. A group of scientists led by Richie Davidson, a world-renowned physician at the Center for the Study of the Healthy Brain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports the following:
- You can train your brain and change it;
- These changes are measurable;
- New ways of thinking can change the brain for the better.
- It’s hard to imagine how this is possible. The practice of awareness is not like taking pills or other means that act quickly, crossing the blood brain barrier of the brain and immediately reproducing one sensation, or reducing the intensity of the other.
However, with regular practice of awareness (about the same as when learning to play the piano) there are processes that increase the level of feeling of well-being and happiness. In an interview with Mindful, Dr. Davidson states that the brain is constantly changing throughout our lives. And he is sure that this is very good news:
We can consciously shape the direction of changes in our brain. For example, concentrating on useful thoughts and focusing our intention in this direction, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brain and shape it in such a way that can be of use to us.
This inevitably leads us to the conclusion that qualities such as cordiality and well-being are worth considering as skills.
Davidson adds that neuroplasticity research gives neurophysiologists the basis for studying the results of meditation. Even a small practice, for example, 30 minutes of meditation per day, causes measurable changes in the brain, visible when scanning the brain.
1. Increase in gray matter (thickness of the cortex) of the brain in key areas
The anterior part of the cingulate gyrus . An increase in gray matter was noted in the anterior part of the cingulate gyrus of the cerebral cortex, which is located behind the frontal lobes of the brain. It is associated with functions such as self-regulating processes, including the ability to manage conflicts of attention, and allows for greater cognitive flexibility.
Prefrontal cortex . An increase in the density of gray matter is also found in the area of the prefrontal cortex, which, in the first place, is responsible for such functions as planning, problem solving and regulation of emotions.
The hippocampus . An increase in the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system that controls learning and memory, and is extremely sensitive to stress and related disorders, such as depression and PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder).
2. Reduction of the amygdala
Studies have shown that the amygdala, which is responsible for the “fight or run” reaction, and which is the storehouse of emotions of fear and anxiety, as a result of the practice of awareness decreases in volume.
3. Changing the functionality in certain neural networks
The results of the practice of awareness have shown that not only the size of the tonsils decrease, but also the functional connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes of the brain are weakened. This leads to less reactivity, and also strengthens the connections between brain regions associated with higher functions (attention, concentration, etc.).
4. Decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (center “I”)
The practice of awareness reduces activity and calms the active default part of the neural network (Default Mode Network), which is known as the “wandering mind of the monkey.” The active default neural network is activated when our mind wanders aimlessly from thought to what looks like a “mental chewing gum”. This often reduces the overall level of happiness (we call this activity a “mental concrete mixer” and most of the thoughts in it are really unproductive: these are possible, but unlikely fears, experiences, fears, etc.-note AC).
Awareness influences our brain through daily routine practice: we train slow, steady, constant evidence of our reality, the ability to stop unproductive thoughts, become more aware, more acceptive, less judgmental and less reactive.
This is exactly the same as when learning to play the piano, when again and again for a long time the work of the brain networks connected with the reproduction of music is strengthened and supported. The practice of mindfulness can change our brains, and thus help create more effective regulators when we can already not react “on the machine” as before, but pause and find our own response in the diversity of our many worlds.