Redirecting Brain Waves: Examining the Effects of Meditation on the Brain
The practice of meditation has been considered beneficial for millennia. Anecdotally, reported benefits include increasing attention span, promoting calmness and helping people develop their ability for insightful thinking. However, only in the modern era has science begun to actually study the specific physiological effects of meditation on the brain. Hard evidence, it turns out, supports these claims.
Types of Meditation
Although meditation practices are numerous and varied, science most often recognizes two basic types: focused attention (FA) and open-monitoring (OM). (In relation to scientific study, both types are equally effective). During FA, subjects maintain their attention to a single thought or observable entity, such as their own breath or a candle flame. In OM, subjects open themselves to all thoughts and feelings, without clinging to them or attaching meaning. Both types emphasize factors such as the physical posture of the meditator and nonjudgment of any thoughts or observations that may arise.
The Immediate Neurological Effects of Meditation
Meditation can have an immediate influence on neurological functions, according to an article in Fast Company. Although several brain sections are affected, the result is essentially the same in each: a slowing or shutting down of activity. Modified areas include the frontal lobe (responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-consciousness), the parietal lobe (sensory processing), thalamus (attention and focus) and reticular formation (alertness to incoming stimuli). The general movement of beta waves (the type of electricity that powers the brain) also decelerates.
Neuroplasticity and Its Distinctions in Meditators vs. Non-Meditators
Neuroplasticity describes the changes that occur in the brain in response to experiences. When a child learns to read or a car crash victim relearns how to walk, this is neuroplasticity in action.
Scientists have discovered that neural processes differ in the brains of those who meditate vs. those who don’t, particularly over time. Dr. Rebecca Gladding, a psychiatrist, explains how parts of the brain can actually rewire themselves after extended meditation practice in Psychology Today.
Gladding describes the relevant sections and functions of the brain:
The insula regulates body sensations and helps guide the body’s “gut-level” responses.
The lateral prefrontal cortex, also referred to as the “assessment center,” enables people to utilize rational and logical perspectives.
Otherwise known as the “fear center,” the amygdala regulates the brain’s fight-or-flight response.
Often referred to as the “me center,” the medial prefrontal cortex takes responsibility for processing all information related to the self. This section is actually further divided into two subsections.
- The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) processes information about people one views as similar. Although it serves several positive functions, it is also the area responsible for increased rumination, worry and aggravated anxiety.
- The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) processes information related to people one considers dissimilar. Functions can include feelings like empathy and behaviors like social interactions.
In the brains of non-meditators, strong connections exist both within the medial prefrontal cortex itself and between it and the insula.
“This [connection],” Gladding says, “means that whenever you feel anxious, scared or have a sensation in your body (e.g., a tingling, pain, itching, whatever), you are far more likely to assume that there is a problem (related to you or your safety). This is precisely because the Me Center is processing the bulk of the information. What’s more, this over-reliance on the Me Center explains how it is that we often get stuck in repeating loops of thought about our life, mistakes we made, how people feel about us, our bodies … and so on.”
However, meditation can cause significant neurological changes to occur, essentially rewiring pathways and resulting in alternative outcomes.
Gladding explains that regular meditation actually loosens the connections between the vmPFC, insula and amygdala. In contrast, a stronger connection begins to form between the lateral prefrontal cortex, amygdala and insula. Meditation can also strengthen the connection between the dmPFC and insula. These rewirings lead to changes such as increased empathy, a higher ability to tolerate or ignore anxiety and a stronger tendency to see life rationally.
Furthermore, studies demonstrate that regular meditation is associated with an increased thickness of certain cortical regions, specifically those related to sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. Meditation may fight age-related decline of these areas.
While regular meditation can significantly change the physiology of the brain, it is important to note that these changes are not permanent. Like muscle mass, one must exercise the brain regularly to have a sustained result. Otherwise, the brain may revert back to its original structures.
Influence of Meditation on Personality Traits
Several experiments have noted key ways in which meditation can alter personality. The following effects of meditation have been documented.
May increase kindness
One university study concluded that subjects who meditated for eight weeks were more likely to give up their seat in a waiting room than those who did not.
Improves capacity to forgive
Three Dutch studies claim that subjects who practiced meditation were more likely to forgive others. One of the studies demonstrated that people who practice mindfulness tend to be more accepting of their romantic partners and to more readily forgive past offenses.
Those who are considered “neurotic” are regarded as individuals who tend to ruminate and worry, experience obsessive negative thoughts and experience elevated levels of loneliness and mood swings. The Journal of Research and Personality suggests that mindfulness can have an inverse effect on those disposed to neuroticism. It may also increase one’s capacity for self-control.
May uncover (and partially mend) racial biases
A study in Social Psychological & Personality Science found that subjects who listened to a 10-minute audio recording about mindfulness meditation were less likely to associate white faces with words holding positive connotations and black faces with negative ones.
Increases a sense of awe
A study at the University of Groningen found that subjects who listened to a 10-minute audio recording about mindfulness were more likely to rate “majestic” images (such as the Grand Canyon or the Earth from space) as awe-inspiring.
Studying at TUW
Perhaps the only thing more intriguing than the complexity of the human brain are the processes by which people have the ability to alter it. Students at Touro University Worldwide have the opportunity to study topics like meditation and gain skills for careers helping others. TUW offers fully online degree programs in health and human services and psychology.