If we research this question online, we’re going to come across headlines like:
Meditation Actually Changes Your Brain
Meditation Literally Changes Your Brain
Meditation Rewires Your Brain.
Are these headlines overblown hype or are they true?
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The answer is the above headlines are not overblown hype. They’re true.
But here’s the thing, everything changes your brain!
Every single thing that we do changes our brain.
Right now, I’m talking. My brain is being changed by the words I’m saying and the thoughts I’m thinking.
Right now, you’re listening to a podcast. Your brain is being changed by the words you’re hearing.
When we’re walking, our brain is being changed. When we’re chewing gum, our brain is being changed and rewired. And you can pretty much guess that walking and chewing gum at the same time is changing our brain.
What’s more, not only is our brain changed by anything we do, our brain is changed by not doing anything at all.
A great comparison is to think about our muscles. Anything we do changes our muscles. It’s instructive to think of the brain loosely as a muscle.
I remember back in the 1980’s tennis players because they used their racket arm more than their other arm, the racquet arm used to be a huge bulging muscular thing. Their other arm was more of an ordinary arm, the kind of arm I might have.
Now of course, all athletes know they have to work all parts of their body equally well to generate balanced strength and become a better athlete.
Another athletic example is to think about the legs of a sprinter. They’re powerful, toned, muscular trunks because that’s the body parts they work out the most.
On the other hand, we can think of ourselves sitting on the couch, watching these athletes do their amazing physical feats.
While we sit there our muscles are being changed just like the athlete’s are muscles are being changed in that moment.
Granted, our muscles are getting a little mushy. The athlete’s muscles are getting stronger. Nevertheless, we’re both changing our muscles.
Similarly, both meditating and not meditating is changing and rewiring our brain. That’s guaranteed. So the idea of meditation rewiring or changing our brain is not a big deal. That’s going to happen regardless whether we meditate or not. A better way to ask the question is, does meditation change the brain for the better?
Does Meditation Change the Brain for the Better?
Does meditation make us better mentally, emotionally, and physically?
In the last episode we saw the answer to this question is yes, there are many mental and emotional benefits that come from meditating.
To summarize: meditation can reduce anxiety and depression, it can help in increasing focus and increasing attention, and it can also help in reducing stress and managing pain.
The big question is are those benefits changing the brain or are the brain changes leading to these benefits?
It’s mostly a back and forth thing.
Definitely a meditation habit leads to brain changes, which reinforce the habit, which leads to more brain changes and a positive reinforcing feedback loop or cycle is created.
Are these brain changes long lasting or does the brain just pop back to its original state once we stop meditating?
Is the effect like a balloon where if we’re holding a fully inflated balloon and we take one finger and press on a part of it, it indents the balloon at the end of our finger. But once we release our finger, the balloon pops back into its original shape.
This analogy is appropriate because as contemplative philosophical meditators, I’m sure we occasionally get accused of being full of hot air. So the balloon comparison is a good comparison in that regard.
Fortunately what’s happening in the brain is not like a balloon full of hot air. The effects of meditation can be long lasting.
States vs Traits
And to understand this we need to understand the difference between states and traits. This difference and these terms, states and traits, is made in the excellent book Altered traits by Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman. The subtitle of this book is Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body.
Richard Davidson has been a pioneer in meditation research and he’s been at the forefront of brain research in relation to meditation for decades.
What he and Daniel Goleman discuss in this book is that often when we’re meditating, we’ll have a bliss moment or an awareness moment or a deep, deep relaxation or connection experience. That experience in itself alone is a state we’re experiencing.
Just like we might talk about being in a state of confusion or state of anxiety or state of panic, we can equally talk about, meditation putting us into a state of bliss or a state of connection or a state of deep relaxation.
These kinds of states, they’re good. They’re desirable. We want these. But we don’t want to be experiencing these states only while we’re meditating. We want to carry them forward to the rest of our life. We want to be able to cultivate these states on a regular basis.
We want these states to become traits. We want to cultivate them as our regular way of being.
Earlier we talked about thinking of the brain loosely as a muscle. Just like with athletes when they train a particular motion enough they develop something called muscle memory. They don’t even have to even think about the desired motion. It just happens automatically.
Whether the desired motion is swinging a bat or a racquet or catching or kicking a ball a trained athlete’s body knows what to do. They have developed that muscle memory trait.
And that’s what we’re going for in our minds and hearts.
We’re trying to inculcate these benefits of meditation as traits. And the good news is that meditation does change particular parts of our brains, for the better, in a permanent way.
Effect of Meditation on Brain Areas
I’m going to name these parts of the brain but you don’t need to know them. Just like we don’t need to know the parts of an engine to drive a car, we don’t need to know the areas of the brain to experience their benefits.
Knowing them is interesting and helpful but not necessary. The only time we really need to know the mechanics of the brain is when something might be going wrong.
If the gears stop shifting properly in our car, it’s helpful to we’re most likely dealing with a transmission problem.
Similarly, unless someone is having neurological issues, we don’t need to remember the brain areas I’m about to talk about.
Just note what the brain areas are responsible for.
Regular meditation leads to long lasting brain changes in the left hippocampus. What happens in that region is learning. Our ability to learn is enhanced with meditation.
Also affected is the posterior cingulate. This area is responsible for wandering thoughts. When we meditate regularly, we’re able to better corral wandering thoughts leading to benefits of greater focus and control of attention.
Meditation also changes the pons. This area of our brain is responsible for sleep and processing sensory input. Meditation strengthens the pons.
Meditation also changes the temporal parietal junction. This area is responsible for empathy and compassion. It makes sense doing empathy, compassion and kindness meditations strengthens the temporal parietal junction.
A brain area that gets smaller with meditation is the amygdala which is the attention announcer of the brain. Whenever something requires attention, the amygdala is involved in alerting us. It’s also involved in feelings of anxiety and fear and general stress. The thinking is that the reduction in size of the amygdala is why we have fewer of these attention grabbing feelings and experiences.
These are the brain areas and what they do and what they’re responsible for.
As mentioned earlier, everything is a feedback loop. As these brain areas change, our habits change, which in turn changes those brain areas even more.
Everything in the Brain is Interconnected
A gigantic caveat to keep in mind in all of this is that nothing in the brain works on its own. Everything works at the same time together.
Going back to the car analogy everything is connected to everything else through something. In a car the steering, the pedals, the pistons in the engine, the crankshaft and axles connected to each other somehow. They all work as one harmonious whole to produce motion in the car.
Similarly, everything in the brain works as one harmonious whole to produce thinking and feeling and doing.
And fortunately for us, regular meditation helps alter the brain to develop long-lasting traits that can help us get to wherever we want to go mentally, emotionally, and physically