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As the concepts of mindfulness and meditation grow in popularity, more and more research is being done to see how consistent time spent in meditation affects our brain.
In general, a consistent practice of meditation will lead to:
- Regulation of mood and emotion
- Improvement in physical health
- Increased ability to empathize, understand perspective and act compassionately
As a result of the greater research in this area, we’re now just beginning to grasp WHY and HOW meditation has such a profound impact in our lives through analyzing the physical structure of the brain.
A Simple Breakdown of The Brain
The most comprehensible and simple breakdown of the human brain breaks it into three parts: The reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex.
The reptilian brain (instinctive brain) includes our brainstem and cerebellum which are in charge of our instinctive functions. It controls our respiratory system, heart rate, body temperature, balance, hunger, fight or flight responses, etc. It’s called the reptilian brain because it includes the same structures found in a reptile’s brain.
The limbic brain(emotional brain) includes our hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus, responsible for our emotions through the recording of memories and behaviors based on our experiences. It’s how our value judgments are made. This system plays an enormous role in affecting our behavior and first emerged in mammals.
The neocortex(thinking brain) contains two large cerebral hemispheres responsible for the development of language, abstract thought, imagination, and ultimately complex social behavior.
These three parts of the brain do not operate independently of one another. Rather, a number of neural interconnections between these brains become developed over time to make us who we are.
The Astonishing Neuroscience Behind Meditation
To put it simply, neuroscientists have found that consistent meditation has a profound impact on certain regions of the brain, along with the way different parts of the brain communicate with each other.
In 2010, Harvard neuroscientists conducted an experiment in which 16 people underwent an 8-week mindfulness course which included daily meditation. What these neuroscientists found through MRI scans was that in these individuals, the concentration of gray matter in the brain increased in certain areas. The portions of the brain that regulate emotions, sense of self, perspective, learning and memory were all enhanced as a result.
This research has shown that as a result of meditation (keep in mind this is after just 2 months), our amygdala begins to shrink while the pre-frontal cortex actually becomes thicker.
This means that the connections between our immediate flight or fight response and our emotional brain become less important, which leaves room for the part of our brain related to awareness, concentration and decision-making to grow thicker.
The fact that gray matter in the brain is increased in the neocortex means that the actual processing power of the “thinking brain” is enhanced through meditation.
We Are Associative Animals
We’re all familiar with the term ‘meditation,’ but very few of us have actually experienced the state of bliss, inner peace, calm and clarity that we imagine when we hear about it.
I want to shed some light on why that is by shedding some light on a related concept – associations.
We all have natural associations and ideas about everything we’ve ever experienced and every idea we’ve ever encountered.
An association is a mental connection between ideas or things. You can think of it as neural connections between the different parts of our brain (instinctive, emotional and thinking).
Each of us wakes up every morning and goes through our lives with the unique experience of it being ‘my life.’ My personal existence, my world, my beliefs, my thoughts, my reactions, my emotions.
We each experience a unique and personal life because from a young age, the brain in the human organism quickly learns to give meaning to events and external stimuli that we encounter.
That whole process of giving a particular meaning to the events we encounter world, our personal memory through these experiences, the creation of our beliefs, our personality – everything that we hold as true in the simplest sense is nothing more than a set of associations that has been built in each of us.
You can go even further and say that what each of our personalities, bodily postures and movements, thoughts and emotions, in essence ARE, is a set of associations.
Imagine a waterfall with two possible paths at the bottom of it, through which water can flow.
If water consistently flows through only one of those paths, that path begins to expand, to deepen, and thus further obstructs the possibility of having any water flow to the alternate path sitting next to it.
Over time, the alternate path completely fills up with dry dirt or sand while the path through which the water flows consistently becomes the only possible direction for the water to travel. In the end, the alternate path may even disappear completely.
This analogy comes very close to describing who we are, why we live our lives the way that we do, how we make decisions, how we act in response to our life’s circumstances. It explains why you’re sitting in the posture you are in while reading this. Why the thoughts that appear in your head aren’t different. Why you like what you do, why you believe in what you do.
Although in reality there are 100 billion neurons in our brains which have potential to create 100 trillion different neural connections, we recognize a minuscule amount of that potential as a result of our attention traveling the same pathways over time and consistently reinforcing the same associations.
The more firmly convinced we become about who we are, what this world is, what’s important in life, and how to go about living life, the stronger those associations become. Ultimately, we end up with a personality that has certain beliefs, thought processes, emotional and physical reactions and habits.
Put simply, what we call ‘me’ is largely the paths my attention consistently travels over time.
If you’re not buying it, I dare you to try to like something or someone you ordinarily don’t like. Try and control your emotions in a situation that usually evokes a response of anger or sadness out of you.
What I’m explaining might be difficult to accept and might itself evoke a negative reaction out of you.
What is it about being told that we don’t have as much control over our thoughts, movements and emotions that causes us to respond with rejection of the concept and negativity?
If you liked the idea, what in you decided to respond positively?
How are these decisions and reactions being made in you?
Our very ideas and associations about what meditation is and what the experience should be like are the very thing that prevents us from being able to experience the benefits that can result with the practice.
What Is Meditation?
The Beginner’s Experience: Coming Into Contact With Chaos
The reason meditation is so ‘difficult’ at first is the fact that we seldom experience what happens to our attention (the movement of our attention) when there is no external stimuli to guide it. Now more than ever in the age of social media and constant content in our faces from all angles, we very rarely find ourselves in position to just watch where our attention and thoughts move when we’re not otherwise ‘active’.
We all have existing ideas and associations related to the word ‘meditation.’ Most of us have this image of sitting with our eyes closed in a comfortable position and bringing our thoughts to a halt, which results in a deep sense of relaxation, calm and peace.
When starting out with meditation, our ready-made idea about what it is could not be further from the truth.
If you’ve ever made an attempt at meditating, chances are you had a very different experience than you expected.
At first, meditation is quite literally the act of coming into contact with the perpetual movement that is always happening inside of us.
The first impressions you’ll have in trying to meditate will likely be along these lines:
Your thoughts don’t stop moving, your body will begin to feel agitated which results in physical tension, you’ll start to think about why you’re wasting our time, you’ll judge yourself for not being able to “do it correctly,” you’ll think about how much longer you set the timer for, you’ll grow agitated by the fact that you can’t slow your thoughts down…. and there will be a huge part of you that wants to give up and never do it again.
I personally know many people that even think that there’s something wrong with them when they try to meditate and see that its difficult to control the focus of their attention.
Here’s what you need to know:
First of all, the chaos you’ll experience in your first attempts to meditate isn’t only normal and expected, it is an exact picture of what is always happening inside of all of us without our conscious awareness of it (difficult pill to swallow, but remember – don’t accept or reject; verify it with your own experience).
Secondly, we very quickly come into the understand that we do not have nearly as much power over our attention, thoughts and emotions as we think we do.
The good news is that the first step into all of the extraordinary benefits that come with meditation is coming into contact with this chaos.
Opening Up To Observation
The next types of experiences you will have in meditation lead to a sort of new ‘definition’ of the term.
Once we accept our lack of true control over our attention and the constant internal movement as normal, meditation becomes the gathering of our attention for the purpose of deeper observation.
What exactly does this deeper observation an entail?
The possibility of opening up more and more to what we normally call ‘myself.’
We generally take ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions. What our head tells us and what we feel quite literally creates and colors our reality.
But if you stay consistent and get closer to experiencing the possibilities of your attention and awareness in meditation, you will be led to a completely new understanding of what in yourself is MOST YOU.
I know this all sounds very vague and abstract, but it isn’t.
We can know that what we are at our core is not our body because we can see our body – we can touch it, we can feel it. Our physical sensations aren’t permanent. They’re always moving between hunger and satiety, cold and warmth, etc. We can know know we’re not our reactive emotions because they’re not permanent – there isn’t one emotion we can call “me.” They’re constantly moving between happiness, sadness, anxiety, satisfaction, etc. We know we’re not our thoughts because we can SEE our thoughts with our mind’s eye. We can both watch our thoughts and see our inability to control our thoughts.
At the same time, we can’t point to what it is in us that makes us alive – we can’t point to what we call ourselves and say that’s what I am. We can’t touch, smell, taste, see, or hear what it is in us that chooses or experiences our touching, smelling, tasting, seeing or hearing.
The more we detach from ourselves in the form of thoughts, the more our attention is freed for observation and focus in a desired direction (which is exactly analogous to our brain’s fight or flight responses being weakened, leaving room for enhanced neural connections in the thinking brain – neocortex).
Coming Into Question
When you begin to form a new type relationship with yourself through practicing your attention and observation, natural questions arise.
What in me has the ability to recognize that my thoughts are moving or that I’m feeling any given emotion?
What is behind the personality that I ordinarily call myself?
What is behind all of this mental, emotional and physical movement?
When these questions are experienced and we can see with clarity that we have no faculty with which to face these questions without giving an automatic mental response, something in us opens up to an even deeper questioning.
When we can reach this stage of truly entering into a question with the understanding that any ‘answer’ we provide is simply a mental response based on our own memory, the thought begins to quiet naturally.
In this this state of consciousness in which we accept that we do not know what the next moment in ourselves will bring, the meditation experience begins to take on an entirely new meaning.
I’m extremely excited to see what new research is done on how meditation affects the human organism – and I hope this helps motivate you to get started.
For a step by step guide to beginning an effective practice of meditation, check this out.