How Meditation Changes Your Brain

Imagine your alarm goes off at 6:30 am and you roll out of bed feeling tired and cranky. You wish you could go back to bed, sleep later, or take the day off. Your mind is racing, though, and there’s a million things to do. You can’t be late for work. You have to pack the lunches, check your email and make sure you don’t forget to add laundry detergent to your shopping list. So you get up. You get in the shower and go. That nagging feeling of tiredness, brain fog, anxiety and overwhelm never really fade throughout the day, except for maybe when you’re enjoying your cup of coffee, or after dinner when you can finally put your feet up and watch your favorite Netflix show.

Now let’s pretend you have a regular meditation practice. The early morning still looks the same. You’re still tired and cranky when you wake up. You still want to go back to bed, but you hear the little voice inside you telling you “Get on your cushion! You never regret it, and always feel better!”

You get your shower and sit down. You set your timer for 20 minutes. You try to sit tall, but your back hurts. You try to relax, but your mind races. If it’s the first few months you’ve really committed to meditating daily, you want to give up every single time you sit. You feel like a failure.

The remarkable thing is that no matter what happens during your meditation sitting, you start to notice how your day goes better. You notice you feel more relaxed overall. You let things go that aren’t such a big deal. You are more patient with your kids, your co-workers and your friends. You’re less threatened by people who insult you or used to intimidate you. It’s not like life is all of a sudden perfect, or easy, but something has changed, and the only thing you can point to is those often excruciating 20 minutes when you sat still in the morning without trying to do anything else.

So what is that? What happened to your body, your brain, and your perception that made such a difference in your day? Why is it that when you stretch, or go for a run, or do some yoga poses, it doesn’t have quite the same effect?

The idea that the brain can change based on our behavior, our attention, our diet and our lifestyle is called neuroplasticity. Instead of our brains being “fixed”, like the relative fixity of the shape of our bones, our height, and our eye color, the way we think, our emotional responses, and our day-to-day mental and emotional experiences are actually very very mutable and highly dependent on if we meditated that morning or not.

Our brains have many different parts. For our lesson today I’ll cover three important sections, since they are so intimately connected to how we feel mentally and emotionally throughout the day.

The first is the hippocampus. Latin for “Seahorse,” the hippocampus is part of the limbic system and processes emotional responses. It stores long term memory and includes all of our experiences from the past, including people, places, ideas, concepts, history, and all the lessons we learned when we were younger. It stores all of our verbal memories and could be thought of as our autobiographical memory.

Multiple studies performed by Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard, showed that the hippocampus actually grew after an 8 week mindfulness based stress reduction course in meditation.

The second part of the brain I’d like to highlight is the amygdala. Latin for “almond,” the amygdala is also part of the limbic system and is a small spherical bulb, shaped like an almond, at the end of the hippocampus. The amygdala takes external stimuli from all of our 5 senses, and all of the environment, and creates an emotional response. It’s also responsible for arousal, and we could think of arousal as an output of attractive, safe, interested emotions, like the desire to connect and be intimate. The amygdala stores our fear, anxiety and aggression memory, telling us what is threatening based on our past experiences. It’s been called the the “alarm circuit for fear” by NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. We could also think of it like the barking dog that alerts us to a threat and tries to protect us from impending harm. It stimulates increased heart rate, blood pressure, and involuntary muscle tension.

Dr. Lazar’s study of meditators showed that the amygdala actually got smaller after the 8 week mindfulness course, which confirms that very common experience that meditators have, where they feel much less stressed throughout their day as a result of their morning sitting. It’s not like the external stimuli, or the “threats” as they were, went away, but our fear got smaller.

“In the late 1930s, researchers discovered that monkeys with damage to the amygdala and surrounding areas of the brain showed a dramatic decrease in fearfulness. Later, scientists found that rats with targeted amygdala damage would snuggle with cats, their natural enemy.”

          -  Scott P. Edwards in The Amygdala: The Body’s Alarm Circuit

The third and incredibly fascinating part of the brain we’ll look at in regards to meditation is called the corpus callosum. Latin for “tough body,” the corpus callosum connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain and in doing so allows for communication between the two. The corpus callosum is the largest piece of white matter in the brain, and I think of it like the “glue” that connects the left and right hemispheres. One study showed that the corpus callosum is actually thicker in long-term meditators than in people who don’t meditate. (Luders E, Phillips OR, Clark K, Kurth F, Toga AW, Narr KL. Neuroimage. 2012 May 15)

Dr. Sara Lazar’s work has also showed that the TPJ (the Temporo-parietal junction) also grew from meditation. The TPJ is the compassion and empathy center. It’s the part that’s important for creativity and seeing things from other people’s point of view.

A different study, also conducted by the Lazar Lab, compared long term meditators to people who don’t meditate. The meditators and yoga practitioners had more grey matter (more folds) in their cortex, in the “newest” part of the brain. This made them better at working memory and executive decision making, and was also correlated with higher IQ. In addition, they had better fluid intelligence, which means they were better able to take novel information and do something useful with it.

In this study they also proved something incredibly hopeful - which is that your brain doesn’t have to start shrinking as you age. It’s well known that typically, the entire front half of the brain shrinks as we age. As we get older, we’re not quite as sharp as when we are young.

Dr. Britta Hölzel is a German neuroscientist and a mindfulness-based stress-reduction and yoga teacher. In her March 2015 article in Nature, she showed how meditation increases attention.

Dr. Herbert Benson, MD showed back in the 1970’s that meditation induced a “relaxation response” that decreased heart rate, decreased breathing rate, and increased digestive function.

Anthony King at the University of Michigan showed that PTSD symptoms improved with meditation.

In summary, meditation changes your brain in profound and incredibly beneficial ways. From decreasing our perception of threat to increasing our attention, empathy, and creativity, the benefits are as far-reaching as they are exciting. It’s my hope that this chapter inspires you to get on your cushion, give yourself a break, don’t worry if it’s hard, and invest in this great panacea that is a regular meditation practice.