From stress reduction to improved attention and memory, meditation is a practice that yields a large number of health benefits. Mediation has slowly been gaining in popularity in recent years, garnering a number of scientific studies to determine the specific effects the practice has on the body. It has been found that meditation and other forms of relaxation and mindfulness not only change the immediate state of mind, but also alter the actual structure of the brain.
Before diving into the details, it is important to outline exactly what meditation means. The practice can present itself in many forms, often times different for different people. Mindfulness meditation or focused attention is the most widely practiced form. During the course of the meditation session, practitioners focus on one thought and one thought alone. If a “stray” thought develops, it must be recognized quickly and then brought back to their original focus of attention.
While it may seem like a fairly simple task, it is a cranial exercise made more difficult by today’s society. With so much information and stimulation around on a daily basis, attention spans are limited and focus can sometimes be hard to come by. Taking time each day to focus on your thoughts is an exercise for your brain that boasts a long list of health benefits.
The most interesting benefit, however, is the way that meditation changes the brain. Below are five ways that being a regular meditator can affect your brain.
1. Boosts memory and awareness
Research has shown that after as little as 8 weeks of meditation, practitioners begin to develop “unique brains” with well-developed areas. These areas are connected to memory, self-awareness and perspective. The increase in thickness of the hippocampus increases the brain’s ability to learn and remember, as well as its ability to regulate emotion.
One of the most commonly mentioned benefits felt by meditators includes self-awareness. Previously, it was believed that this benefit came from simply spending more time thinking about oneself. Now, it is clear that a specific change happens in the brain to facilitate this benefit.
2. Enhances empathy
In an extremely individualistic culture like that of the United States, meditation has been slow to catch on when compared to its widespread popularity in other parts of the world. One of the reasons for this is because the focus on the individual and “me-centered” thought process is much more prominent in the U.S. than in other countries of the world.
The idea to take time to be mindful feels like an impediment to the individual when, in reality, it builds a stronger individual by helping them gain empathy for others. A Yale University study found that mindful meditation decreases activity in the brain network responsible for self-referential thoughts. At the same time, brain regions responsible for empathy are developed. Together, these two effects create a greater sense of empathy and ability to more effectively socialize with many types of people.
3. Improves stress management
For years, one of the major benefits of meditation has been the improved ability to deal and manage one’s stress. A major reason for this is the decreased brain cell volume in the part of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. The physical and scientific stress reduction coupled with the participants perceived improvement make for an overall exponential increase in stress reduction. For example, what may only be a small scientific reduction can lead to a meditator believing that their stress has reduced even more. In addition, meditation gives people the tools and self-awareness to be able to deal with stress more effectively.
On both a scientific and psychological level, stress management is one of the major draws for newcomers in the field of meditation.
4. Increases self-control
In general terms, multiple studies have found that meditation can be effective at improving the area of the brain responsible for self-control. Practically, this development can be applied to many areas of life and, most recently, has been used to treat people with addiction. As a treatment possibility, meditation drastically reduces the state of “craving” cigarettes, drugs, or whatever substance a person is addicted to. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based relapse prevention are both treatment options that maximize these positive effects on the brain for addiction treatment.
For those without an addiction, meditation still serves as a tool to increase self-control. Whether you’re looking to make better nutritional choices or kick a bad habit, practicing meditation can help lead to you making better decisions and controlling your urges.
5. Strengthens the immune system
Meditation also works to increase the left-side brain activity, which can have positive effects on the immune system. Increased overall brain activity has been linked to a stronger immune response. For this reason, a brain that is exercised regularly through mindful, or any other form, of meditation, is more likely to have higher activity, more viral fighting antibodies, and an overall stronger immune system.
Meditation is a practice with a long list of pros and a virtually non-existent list of cons. With so much potential for positive change and effects on the brain, what are you waiting for?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Hunter loves designing strategies with her team and is excited about spreading the Zen gospel. In her spare time, she cheers for Carolina Crown and Phantom Regiment, crafts her own sodas, and crushes tower defense games. Follow her on Twitter at @Emily2Zen