Author: Lucy Hayes, Biology MSci, University of Bristol.
The purpose of this article is to provide a light-hearted, yet educational, insight into how meditation is an exceptional means of enjoying good mental health and its effects on the brain. During a period of poor mental health, I discovered meditation through a University group where we would practice for an hour daily. I have since experienced enhanced attention, introspection, compassion and even a better immune system! As a Biology postgrad, I was compelled to understand why meditation is so beneficial for our wellbeing and the research into its effects on the brain. Needless to say, I love writing! I hope this piece encourages us to explore the ways we can look after ourselves as well as having a little giggle along the way.
3 cognitive benefits of meditation: And why the f*ck is no one talking about them?
‘What the f*ck is meditation? And why do people do it? Are they okay?’ are questions we ask when our friends announce their summer plans to retreat with a Yogi to ‘find themselves’ in Thailand. This article explores the benefits of meditation through the lens of neuroscience. Meditation is stilling the mind to achieve a heightened sense of physical, emotional and mental awareness. You may be familiar with popular forms such as Concentration, Awareness and Loving Kindness meditation. Current research suggests meditation is associated with changes in brain structure and cognition regardless of the technique. Structural brain alteration, the default mode network and reduction in neurodegeneration will be discussed. So, grab a cup of tea, sit down and take a few minutes to learn about how meditation can modify your mind.
1. Like Boris’ tier system, your brain will change frequently without warning
Researchers suggest as little as fifteen minutes of regular meditation can induce structural changes in the brain. This may affect your neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes and even your gene expression. Moreover, if you’re looking for a boost in cognitive performance after binging the entirety of Netflix over lockdown, then meditation may be for you. MRI studies have revealed increases in brain tissue and thicker, more complex, cerebral cortices in long-term meditators as well as increases in grey matter. You’ll basically be Megamind. Although the field is in its infancy, the left side of the brain is collecting a growing body of research in its association to meditation. This half of the brain is responsible for controlling our emotions. It is the reason we cry when watching Love Actually and laugh when children fall over (don’t take the moral high ground, we all do it). Studies state frequent meditators possess an increased activation on the anterior section of the left side of the brain. They suggest this was associated with a more adaptive response to stressful events and a reduced anxiety. As many of us have experienced an increase in anxiety in relation to current global affairs, meditation may be worth exploring.
2. You’re not married to your default mode network
If, like me, you are plagued by reoccurring thoughts, then your default mode network might be to blame. The default mode network is like a well-worn path, and in times of boredom or low stimulation, the brain will walk this route over and over again. Often coined ‘mind-wandering’, the default mode network is the reason we daydream about lunch when we should be paying attention at work. Studies suggest that long-term meditation practitioners weaken the default mode network. This can be likened to creating many diversion routes from the ‘well-worn path’ or even blocking it off all together. In doing so, they are said to experience a reduced ‘chaining’ of thoughts and achieve a feeling of expansiveness and freedom.
3. Meditation is Botox for the brain
‘I’m really too young to be feeling this old.’ – Drake.
Drake’s message is neurologically relevant in modern day. 1 in 4 of us will experience depression in our lives, and scientists have stated it as a subtle neurodegenerative illness. When the brain ages, it loses a significant amount of brain tissue. Researchers have found meditation relates to a decline in this process. Subsequently, scientists suggest meditation to be a relevant form of treatment, alongside the current medical approaches, to a variety of disorders associated with the pathological loss of brain tissue. Therefore, much like Botox, meditation can have our body looking youthful again – albeit through an MRI scanner. Notably, the most remarkable person I have ever met uses meditation to combat their degenerative disease. Their illness currently has no cure and they confess they should not have survived this long. When asked how they surpassed the doctors’ expectations, they explained “I had began meditating when I was confronted daily with the question of my mortality. I knew I was going to die but the curiosity of meditation kept me going. I honestly believe without meditation I would not be sat here. My disease affects my brain, emotions and cognition. Meditation keeps me alive.” Despite the multitude of confounding factors surrounding this case, it raises the question of how long it will be until meditation has a critical role in education, healthcare and our lives.
A final word on the 3 neurological benefits on meditation and why the f*ck no one is talking about them.
We don’t know enough. Honestly. Although this field is new and exciting, much of the data collected are confounded by genetics, the environment and prior meditation experience. However, we have been able to answer the question of what the f*ck meditation is, but why do people do it? And are they okay? I can only speak from personal experience, but the reasons people meditate vary. Some use it as a tool to calm the body and mind, while others enjoy its nurturing properties to better understand the self and others. If you want to explore meditation, practice with a partner or in a group. Your support will increase the likelihood of sticking to a routine. And as for ‘are they okay?’, undoubtedly those who frequently meditate are doing better than you think. Dependent on their style, teacher and routine, practitioners may enjoy enhancements in attention, immunity and prosocial behaviour. So, whether you want to rewire your brain, quiet your thoughts or maintain a youthful mind, regular meditation could be for you.
Featured photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels.