Meditation 101: How Meditation Changes Your BrainPosted by Medicare Made Clear
(Part 4 of a 4-part series)
Scientists long believed that the human brain was finished with growth and development after twenty-five or thirty years of age. It seemed to be all downhill from there as the years took their toll. But it’s now thought that this decline may not be inevitable.
Meditation practice is associated with changes in the brain that may actually help improve attention, learning, memory and emotional regulation, to name just a few. And these improvements may happen at any age.
Here’s a quick rundown of what the current research says ab/out how meditation may change your brain.
Meditation Grows Your Gray Matter
Gray matter makes up the outermost layers of the brain. It’s responsible for getting information from the senses (what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell) to where it needs to go to be processed.
Meditation has been shown to increase gray matter in as little as 8 weeks—particularly in the hippocampus area of the brain—according to a 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. In addition, a 2009 study reported in the Neurobiology of Aging showed that meditation may diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce cognitive decline.
The hippocampus area of the brain helps join information from short-term memory to long-term memory and also plays an important role in spatial navigation. It’s one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage in Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. That’s why memory loss and disorientation are usually among the early symptoms.
Meditation Makes Brain Connections Better
Our brains have two different neural networks that contribute to our experience of “self.” One network leads to thoughts about what is happening and how we are. We basically create stories in our minds about what we’re experiencing. Most of us experience this as a wandering mind, and scientists call it the Default Mode Network. If you’ve ever had occasion to stop and recognize your thoughts, you may have realized that they are not always accurate or helpful. Our minds can spin a yarn that may or may not be based on reality. These undesirable brain functions are responsible for lapses of attention and are linked to disorders such as anxiety, ADHD and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
A different network in the brain is associated with the direct experience of sensation and emotion in the present moment. This direct-experience network is connected to and activates the story-telling network. So we are kind of hardwired to shift away from direct experience to the (default) thinking mode.
A 2011 study at Yale found that the connection between these two networks was relatively deactivated in people who meditate. In addition, meditators showed stronger connections in areas of the brain associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control. These changes in the brain suggest that meditators may be better able to recognize and choose to interrupt the mind-wandering that can lead to negative ruminations and beliefs.
Meditation Amps Up Alpha Waves
Researchers at Harvard’s Osher Research Center found that people who practiced meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions more quickly than those that did not meditate. This ability to ignore distractions could explain why these meditators were seen to have a superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.
Meditation has also been linked to changes in electrical brain activity (Theta and Alpha EEG activity), which is associated with wakeful and relaxed attention.
So what are you waiting for? Start meditating, and you could transform your brain!
Other articles in this series explain what meditation is, explore the health benefits of meditation and more. Read other articles in this series.
For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.
Guided Meditations: Choose from several short meditation tapes provided by UCLA at no cost.
Medicare & You: Get the U.S. government’s official Medicare handbook.