Meditation is the process of focusing attention on inner silence rather than external activity—it is, in essence, a reminder that you are not a human doing but a human being. In meditation, you are purposefully paying non-judgmental attention to the experience of the current moment. While the mind has an affinity for future focus, mindfulness and meditation help bring focus to the present. According to John Kabat-Zinn, expert in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), the objective of mindful meditation is to welcome and accept the current state including any emotions, thoughts, and perceptions.
There are a vast range of meditation and mindfulness approaches and modalities that include primordial sound meditation, transcendental meditation, MBSR, and mindfulness-based strengths practice. One thing all of these choices have in common is a focus that, over time, offers experiences at different levels of consciousness and connects you to your higher self, offering glimpses at why you are here. This discovery is often hidden beneath stress, fear, anxiety, environmental toxins, as well as your busy mind.
Not only is meditation a powerful counteraction to fear, stress, anxiety, and toxins, but meditation helps bring feelings of peace and an experience of connection to a more collective consciousness—that feeling you get when you resonate with the common humanity of those you work with, your friends, complete strangers, and your family. But how? What happens to your brain when you meditate?
Thinking, Sensing, Feeling
When you start a meditation, often you are seated in a quiet place with your eyes closed. As you begin to focus either on your breathing or a mantra what often occurs is a series of thoughts or some type of distraction, physical discomfort, or emotional feelings. You start to notice the wandering of your mind making mental to-do lists, wondering where your friends from high school are right now and how many kids they have, or you start creating a business plan for your latest invention. You hear your stomach growl and feel the tingling as your right foot falls asleep.
Then suddenly you become aware that your mind has wandered, and you are gifted the opportunity to begin again. Thinking, sensing, and feeling are all regular occurrences during a seated meditative practice. They are simultaneously the reminder to stay focused, and the distraction from staying focused. Your ability to notice the thought, discomfort, or emotions and return to the breath is a powerful part of the meditative process. It is a process, or perhaps better still—a practice.
Your brain has a default mode that basically encourages it to start wandering (or wondering) whenever you don't have something to do. During meditation, as you sit and focus, your brain automatically enters this default mode. When participants in a study were asked to think of nothing it was noted that rather than seeing reduced brain activity, as scientists had predicted, instead there was an increased level in activation across may regions. This increase seems to be associated with creativity and problem solving and in people with a regular meditative practice, it is even a stronger connection.
The Effects of Meditation on the Brain
To understand the effects of meditation on the brain, it is necessary to understand how your brain works and what happens when stress hits your brain.
In your daily life, you come into contact with various stimuli—this might be a traffic jam on the way to work, the powerful smell of coffee in the morning, or a colleague using a tone of voice that feels derogatory. This stimulus has a direct line to the amygdala, the little almond-shaped part of your brain, whose role is to activate your alert system. The amygdala looks for reasons to scream—Alert! Danger! Fear!
You face two types of stress:
- Eustress (positive stress): Helps you by priming your body before you run a race or allows you to quickly jump out of the way of oncoming traffic
- Distress (negative stress): Where you ruminate over Instagram for hours wondering why you don’t have more money, or a beach house, or a boyfriend
Both types of stress trigger a signal to your adrenal glands to release a cascade of hormones. This is where the symptoms of stress commonly known as fight/flight/flee begin. These symptoms include:
- Increase in heart rate
- Increased breath rate
- Pupils dilate
- Chills or sweating
- Increase in blood sugar
- Digestive problems
- Dry mouth
Regular activation of this fight/flight/flee response in a non-life threatening situation weakens your long-term health. Increased blood pressure leads to heart stress and coronary disease, and increased levels of stress hormones lead to insomnia, which, in turn, can lead to self-medicating as a coping mechanism. Increased blood sugar can affect individuals with diabetes.
The amygdala shares a special connection with another part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which helps put you in charge of the chain reaction of signals your brain sends. This is similar to the difference between a smoke alarm, automatically triggered by any smoke and pulling a fire alarm, which requires an assessment of the situation (or stimulus) prior to physically pulling the alarm. The smoke alarm is the amygdala and the fire alarm is the prefrontal cortex.
This area is the control center of the brain. Think of it as the bridge on the Starship Enterprise; its main function is emotional regulation of those responses to stress that have begun in the amygdala. When signals received by your amygdala are perceived as a threat, the prefrontal cortex has the job of helping you to see stressful events as a little less scary or frustrating—of helping you to stay calm.
In the case of the fire alarm, it allows time to ask: “Is that smoke from burnt toast or incense or is it from a dangerous source?” The ability to slow the response and allow more thoughts to be processed is dynamic over time and increases with practice. The connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex doesn't mature until the late teen years, which is why it can be more challenging for a child or a teenager to calm themselves when they feel stressed or scared. Meditators do experience both eustress and distress however they are more able to put space between the perceived distress and their response, learning to regulate that cascade of hormones.
When you meditate there is a calming of the stress response and improvement of immune functioning. Additionally, a state of relaxed attention is created that enables you to achieve less rigid thinking patterns. Regularly practicing mindfulness is believed to lead to deeper self-awareness and increased capacity to manage emotional responses effectively. Indeed, studies and reviews of mindfulness programs have consistently found it to be effective in improving health in adult populations. It also “rewires” the brain.
Expert meditators have been seen developing a thicker cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer, which is the part of the brain you depend on for more sophisticated thought processes like introspection and abstract thinking. More wrinkles mean better working memory and executive decision-making.
Often described as seahorse-shaped, the hippocampus is your memory center, affecting cognitive skills and mental capacity. Research has shown up to a 15 percent increase in the size of this region in meditators.
Temporo Parietal Junction (TPJ)
Meditators have larger TPJs, which are associated with perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion. Being more able to take perspective in an open-minded way and having a greater level of self-compassion are both traits that have been loosely associated with meditators.
Why It Matters
Although researchers once thought that brain formation stopped at around five years of age, it is now known that your brain can rewire itself throughout your life. Meditating actually changes the structure and function of your brain.
The effects of meditation on the brain are profound and impactful for your overall health and well-being. This might be due to naturally occurring brain chemicals released during meditations that are related to aspects of happiness like dopamine, for pleasure, serotonin for calm, oxytocin for love, or endorphins for exhilaration. Your brain while meditating seems to be primed to enjoy the good things in life and cope resiliently when times are tough.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Learn how to use meditation to help heal mind, body, and spirit with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.