This is your brain on meditation.

Updated: Apr 1, 2018

Meditation is hard to do especially if you've never done it before. How do you turn off thousands of thoughts running through your mind at any given time? Like any skill, meditation takes repetition. As you develop a meditation practice, you may notice a positive shift in behaviors related to concentration, emotional balance, stress management, decision making, socializing, etc. This video published by UpRising, called "The Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation," does a good job explaining how meditation helps you hone behavior skills so that they become automatic - a habit.

The part in the video that mentions "meditation changes the structure of the brain" (0:20) stuck out to me in particular. When I think of "structure," this implies to me as something tangible. A shape, form, composition, and anatomy. So I dug a little further...

While these psychological changes are happening during meditation, what else is occurring in the brain that attributes to these changes within you?

From a preliminary search off PubMed, I found that there have been several neuroimaging studies on the brain to examine the affect of meditation. This one, for example, intrigued me.

Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.

This study presents correlative data of gray matter density going up in individuals who participated in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program. Here are some summarizing details from the article:

  • 17 people on wait-listed for the program made up the control group. 16 participants, who went through the 8 week program, made up the experimental group.

  • The participants were scanned 2 weeks before and after the program, and the control group were scanned 2 times as well about 2 months apart.

  • Analysis of the MRI scans showed significant increases in the left side of the hippocampus of the individuals in the experimental group who were in the MBSR program.

  • The data is not sufficient to conclude that meditation and mindfulness = positive changes. The authors mention that the MBSR program included social interaction, education on stress management, and exercise (i.e. yoga). So it's very possible that the culmination of all these things in addition to the meditation and mindfulness affected the overall results.

After reading one study with such a small sample size and potential variables, I personally can't really speculate that the structure of the brain changed by meditation is the hippocampus. But I think that it's interesting to point out that something physiologically is happening to the brain, which can be objectively measured. If science continues to prove that the hippocampus is the structure specifically changing in the brain due to meditation, then I wouldn't be surprised. It makes sense. The hippocampus is the control center of memory and emotions in our brain, and meditation helps us create space for learning positive behaviors and regulating our emotions.

Need additional proof or validation? Fact check here:

Cell Journal


Scientific American

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