An introduction to the neuroscience of meditation by Pam McDonald, LCSW-C
People have been experiencing the benefits of meditation for thousands of years. Only recently, however, has science been able to begin to understand how meditation can help the brain to change and grow in positive ways.
As a result, psychotherapists are recommending meditation practices, like mindfulness, with increased frequency.
Mindfulness is a contemplative form of meditation and the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. Individuals who practice mindfulness meditation often exhibit better self-understanding, compassion and awareness. And they seem to understand and control their moods better. Many meditators also report making healthier choices in their lives, and feeling more authentic, grounded, and connected to others.
Thanks to advances in the neurosciences, we are beginning to understand how to stimulate and strengthen parts of our brain through meditation to achieve these benefits and live happier, wiser, and healthier lives.
While neuroscience is still in its infancy, researchers have discovered fascinating insights into the brain’s interrelationship with the mind. The mind and the brain continually sculpt and shape one another through day-to-day experiences, consciously and unconsciously.
Dan Siegel, M.D., an expert on mindfulness and the brain, believes awareness, cultivated in meditation can consciously “shape the activity and growth of the parts of the brain responsible for our relationships, our emotional life, and our physiological response to stress.”
Mindfulness researchers, including Siegel, have identified the positive impact of meditation on areas of the brain associated with human’s higher executive functions and mood regulation. Meditation also has been shown to improve an individual’s abilities to parent, bond, communicate, cooperate, and love.
Antoine Lutz, a University of Wisconsin professor renowned for his research on the mechanisms behind mind-brain-body interactions, conducted an extensive study in 2004. It revealed that long-term meditators could self-induce positive, synchronized changes to brain activity, and that long-term neural changes were evident in the brain chemistry of long-term meditators.
These findings, coupled with neuro-scientific discoveries of the brain’s capacity to grow and change throughout one’s life span is good news. The message seems pretty clear: the more that we consciously choose healthy, positive thoughts, the more those choices get woven into the brain for lasting benefits for well being.
Through the course of evolution, humans have survived by remembering to stay away from bad experiences. Thus our brains evolved to remember negative experiences more vividly than positive ones.
The fight or flight response is an example. This is triggered by the sympathetic nerve system (SNS) and hormonal system responding in tandem to a perceived threat. You can feel it in the body as your heart rate increases, pupils dilate, large muscle groups receive more blood, and emotions intensify.
We have fewer needs for fight or flight responses in our modern world but, unfortunately, this response often gets activated when people unconsciously over-react to a situation. This, in turn, triggers a physiological response that wears down the immune, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems.
Meditation aids the nervous system by balancing the SNS and the parasympathetic nerve system (PNS). The PNS is crucial to survival; it controls the resting state of relaxation and maintains steady-state activity. When the SNS and PNS are balanced, we feel energized and relaxed, alive and centered.
Knowing more about how the brain functions, we can help maintain balance in our nervous system through a simple practice. The Heart Math Institute developed the following technique to help reduce stress and increase positive feelings. Try it and Be Well!
1. Practice breathing with an equal inhalation and exhalation. You can count, 1-2-3 on the inhale and 1-2-3 on the exhale.
2. At the same time, focus on your heart and imagine that you are breathing in and out through the heart area.
3. As you breathe evenly through your heart, bring to mind a pleasant, loving, happy experience or feeling of gratitude for something in your life. Focus on this good feeling and breathe it in and out through the heart.
4. Continue this for a minute or longer and notice the changes in your body and mind.