Meditation and Neuroscience

To explore the science behind meditation, let's start with some basics…

What is meditation?

To cultivate focused attention, turning away from ‘autopilot state’ or what Buddhists refer to as ‘monkey mind’ — you may well be familiar with this sensation, of thoughts jumping around like monkeys from tree to tree.

The advantages of meditation are widespread — from health benefits to the simple practice of relating more calmly to the people around us. Like most good things, meditation requires practice, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be hard work. In fact, by finding the type of meditation that’s right for you, the process can be very enjoyable.

What is Neuroscience?

Any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain. My specialism from the academic world is behavioural neuroscience: exploring the neurons and brain circuitry that underlie our behaviour. How the brain affects behaviour, and indeed how our behaviour can affect our brain.

Why talk about both?

Meditation can change the brain, this is a bold and pretty exciting statement. For a long time it was thought that your brain was fixed, unchanging, and your behaviours as a result were hard to change. But it turns out that with the discovery of a process known as neuroplasticity — our brains are more adaptive and changeable than we originally thought, and medititon is a practice that can bring about this change.

Techniques such as neuroimaging measurements, density of brain tissue, thickness of brain tissue, fmri scanning of brain activity have shown us that many areas of the brain are affected during and after meditation.

So what areas of the the Brain are affected?

• Lateral prefrontal cortex: is involved in modulating emotional responses (originating from the fear center or other parts of the brain) this is also the part of the brain that allows you to look at things from a more rational, logical and balanced perspective.

• Medial prefrontal cortex: the part of the brain that constantly references back to you, your perspective and experiences. Many people call this the “Me Center” of the brain because it processes information related to you, including when you are daydreaming, thinking about the future, reflecting on yourself.

Insula: experience and perception, it helps “guide” how strongly you will respond to what you sense in your body (i.e., is this sensation something dangerous or benign?). It is also heavily involved in experiencing/feeling empathy.

Amygdala: responsible for many of our emotional responses and reactions, including the “fight-or-flight” response (this is our fear centre)

So what happens to the Brain on Meditation?

If you meditate on a regular basis, several positive things happen.

· Strong connections between lateral prefrontal cortex and the Amygdala weaken: This explains, in part, why anxiety decreases the more you meditate — it’s because the neural paths that link those upsetting sensations to the fear centre (amygdala) are decreasing. As a result, you are more readily able to see those sensations for what they are and not respond as strongly to them.

· A stronger, healthier connection forms between the Insula and amygdala. This means that when you experience a bodily sensation or something potentially dangerous or upsetting, you are able to look at it from a more rational perspective (rather than automatically reacting). For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.

· Meditating activates the part of the brain involved in the experience of empathy (insula). The end result is that we are more able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, increasing our ability to feel empathy and compassion for everyone.

· Decreased Amygdala Size: Studies have shown that the amygdala, our brain’s “fight or flight” centre and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice.

· Meditation increases whole brain function by synchronizing right and left hemispheres of the brain.

· The stimulation that mediation provides the prefrontal cortex increases dopamine and serotonin levels — our happiness chemicals.

What do these changes mean for us, day to day?

  • Better focus Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.
  • Less anxiety 1) The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways 2) further this with guided positive imagery mediation
  • More compassion
  • Better memory
  • Increased focus and the ability to ‘tune out’ distraction also makes for better recall.
  • Less stress

The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is a product from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive.

Regular Practice is Important

In a very real way, are changing your brain for the better when you meditate. With time and practice, people do truly become calmer, have a greater capacity for empathy and find they tend to respond in a more balanced way to things, people or events in their lives. However, you have to keep meditating. Why? Just as playing the guitar over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make us more efficient regulators: pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting. Continued meditation practice ensures that the new neural pathways stay strong. Similarly, focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.

So lets do it! 4 simple meditation exercises

Try each of these meditations for 5 minutes to begin with, exploring, which you enjoy, or find most enjoyable. Work to extending the time gradually as you get more comfortable; there is no minimum or maximum length of time for meditation. Do what feels comfortable!

1. MINDFULNESS

WHAT: Also known as Vipassana or insight meditation, mindfulness practice entails focusing bare awareness on the object of meditation — be it the breath, physical sensations, outside sounds or all of the above.

HOW:

1. Assume a comfortable but alert upright position.

2. Gently bring your attention to the breath, and note each inhalation and exhalation — without trying to change anything or breathe in any specific way.

3. When you notice your mind wandering (as it most certainly will, over and over!) gently bring your attention back to the breath and start again.

WHY: According to Buddhist teachings, applied mindfulness meditation — along with strong concentration and appropriate moral conduct — leads to enlightenment, or liberation from suffering. As an added bonus, mindfulness meditation has been found to lower stress and fight mental health issues J

2. MANTRA

WHAT: Mantra meditation is similar to mindfulness meditation, with the addition of a repetition of a simple word or phrase.

HOW:

1. Pick your mantra — it could be a simple word like “calm” or “peace,” a phrase “I am Calm and Happy” or a Sanskrit mantra such as “Om Shanti Om” (peace for all)

2. Assume a comfortable upright position, and spend 30 seconds just sitting with your eyes closed before starting your mantra.

3. As effortlessly and silently as possible, begin repeating your mantra to yourself (not aloud), over and over.

WHY: The repetition of a mantra quiets the breath, and using a mantra can help focus and sharpen a mind prone to wandering during meditation.

3. WALKING

WHAT: Walking meditation can help bring strong awareness to the body and to physical sensations.

HOW:

1. Choose a small, flat area on which to walk back and forth, such as a garden, beach, or a spacious room.

2. Before you start moving, stand still for a few moments and consciously bring your attention into the body. Notice the sensations of your feet on the ground, clothes on your body, and sun and wind on your skin.

3. Begin walking as slowly as you can while still feeling natural, keeping your attention within the body. When the attention drifts to outside sights or thoughts gently bring it back to the movement in the lower half of your body — the soles of your feet on the ground, the bending and extending of the knee and the curl of your toes.

WHY: The simple exercise of stepping from foot to foot naturally creates a meditative state, calming the mind and cultivating sharper awareness. Walking meditation can be a fantastic stepping stone to bringing mindful attention to every part of the day — from walking to work to cooking or doing the dishes.

When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your feet. You’re building a skill of noticing when your attention drifts into ‘autopilot’ mode and bringing it back into focus. This ability can help you be more present and in control of your attention every day, especially in times of stress.

4. VISUALIZATIONS

WHAT: Guided visualizations or imagery bring the meditator into a deeply relaxed state, to imagine a particular scene.

HOW:

1. Find a quiet area and sit/lay in a comfortable position.

2. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, and begin to visualize yourself in a calm environment — perhaps an empty beach, a meadow, or relaxing in a hammock.

3. Engage all of your senses by imagining how your peaceful place looks, feels, sounds, smells, and even tastes. The more vividly you capture your imagined location.

4. To enhance the experience, you can listen to ambient sounds related to your imagined environment (such as a recording of ocean waves if you’re visualizing a beach).

WHY: Guided visualizations have been found to lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, by quieting the body and the mind. Specific visualizations can also be used to help achieve specific goals, such as imagining yourself remaining calm during a stressful event.

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