Meditation is an age-old practice that is beneficial for our mood and mindset, but there is much more to meditation than taking a few moments a day for self-care. It has a profound impact on both the body and the brain. Studies have shown that meditation can make positive structural changes within the brain, improve health biomarkers, and change brain activity patterns.
Throughout our hectic days, our minds often go in a thousand different directions. Centering your mind and bringing your focus inward seems like a daunting task, and starting a meditation practice can be difficult. When I first started meditating, I always felt like I was doing it "wrong" because I often had thoughts come up (and this still happens). Meditation gets easier with practice, so I always recommend committing to at least 30 days. With time, you will experience the long-term benefits and structural improvements of your brain.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique–such as mindfulness or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity–to train attention and awareness and achieve a mentally clear, emotionally calm, and stable state. There are many different types of meditations, but there are five popular approaches:
- Loving Kindness Meditation: This form encourages you to engage in mindfulness and deep breathing exercises with the goal of opening yourself up to receiving loving-kindness from others and sending it back in return.
- Transcendental Meditation: With this approach, it involves silently repeating a mantra for 15–20 minutes a day. It is commonly done sitting with the eyes closed.
- Guided Visualization Meditation: During a guided meditation, a meditation teacher, therapist, or another instructor (such as a voice on an app) leads your meditation. You'll be prompted to visualize positive imagery during this time.
- Mantra Meditation: This is a form of meditation that uses the repetition of phrases (mantras) to help you focus and set your intentions.
- Zen Meditation: Rooted in Buddhist psychology, this meditation technique's goal is to regulate your attention.
How Can Meditation Change Your Brain?
Now let's dive into how meditation can measurably change your brain. Studies showed that meditation increases the amount of gray matter in your brain. Gray matter is involved in movement and sensory perception, including emotions, decision making, speech, and hearing. As we age, we lose gray matter tissue in the brain. So not only is meditation encouraged for improving your current gray matter tissue, but it will help maintain healthy gray matter in your later years (if the practice is continued.)
The study also showed meditation also increases the cortical thickness of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for regulating emotions and our memory.
This same study also found that meditation can decrease the amygdala volume, which is the brain area primarily responsible for fear and stress. With continued practice, the areas responsible for fear and stress will become less powerful, while areas associated with positive emotions and behaviors will become powerful.
The points above describe how meditation can change the tissue concentration in your brain. Now let's move onto how meditation can change the activity in your brain or how your brain is firing. Changing how your brain "fires," or more specifically, how the neurons in your brain fire, is called Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout your life. In other words, you can change the way you think and how you respond emotionally.
Here is a real-life and personal example of neuroplasticity in action: I grew up in a very emotionally toxic household; I always felt that I had to defend myself. Because most emotions directed at me were negative, I developed a negative mindset and automatically defensive response. As I entered adulthood, I recognized I continued to project a defensive and negative attitude and response to my new relationships, even though these relationships were positive and far from my childhood traumas.
I did this because negativity and defensiveness were hardwired in my brain. The activity centers in my brain responsible for stress, anxiety, and fear, were overactivated. At this point, I knew I needed to make a substantial change. This is where neuroplasticity came in. I committed to daily meditations, affirmations, and visualizations, to rewire my brain to process interactions differently. I was able to calm the overactive centers in my brain and change how I respond to situations.
Meditation has proven to be an essential tool in our rewiring process time and time again. Another study performed brain scans on a group of participants going through a highly stressful stage of life, then taught them a meditation practice. The follow-up brain scans showed more activity in the brain region related to a resting state within three days. After a four-month follow-up, the same individuals underwent a blood draw, and their lab results showed lower inflammation levels, which are linked to stress.
Meditation will also improve your focus. Immediately after meditation, you will feel more focused, but the practice will take effect in the ventral posteromedial cortex, a brain region related to random thoughts. Brain scans of individuals who meditate show more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex versus those that do not.
How to Start Your Meditation Practice
To begin your meditation practice, start small. Commit to meditating only a few minutes a day, and work your way up to 15 minutes or more. I suggest "stacking" your practice with other daily tasks so it becomes a habit. For example, you can meditate right after waking or meditate after a shower. You are more likely to stick with habits when you stack them together.
You should also choose a time and place that makes the most sense for you. If you're willing to wake up 20 minutes earlier and have slower mornings, plan to meditate each morning. If you know you have hectic mornings, plan for the evening. Find a space you can make sacred—that can be a meditation cushion, your couch, or anywhere that you feel comfortable. Lastly, many great apps exist to help you kickstart your practice, such as Headspace, Breathe, and Insight Timer. Bottom line: Meditation is a transformative practice, and there are many ways to incorporate it into your lifestyle.
Sharma H. Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu. 2015;36(3):233-237.
Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36-43.
Pagnoni G. Dynamical properties of bold activity from the ventral posteromedial cortex associated with meditation and attentional skills. J Neurosci. 2012;32(15):5242-5249.