7 Ways Meditation Supercharges Your Brain
Meditating on a regular basis can have astonishing, long-term brain benefits
Posted Nov 20, 2015
Everyone is promoting meditation and mindfulness these days, to the point of mindfulness meditation as a resource for creativity or exceptional performance (from the boardroom to the locker room) overload. However, when scientists study the effects of meditation, the results are actually quite impressive—on both a short-term and a long-term basis. Last week I talked about the short-term brain benefits meditation brings, which are significant. (See blog titled “Fire Up Your Neuronal Network” posted on November 12, 2015.) Meditation has been shown to provide many health benefits for mind, body, brain, and spirit, not only solely when practiced, but particularly when practiced on a regular basis over a period of time.
Researchers using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators found that those who regularly practiced meditation had less anxiety in the “default mode” network of the brain (consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulated cortex), which has been linked to distraction, anxiety, attention deficit, and hyperactivity. It’s also been associated with the buildup of amyloid plagues in the brain that may lead to the development Alzheimer’s disease. They found that those who meditated on a regular basis gained the following specific benefits:
- A decrease in activity in this default mode network—no matter which type of meditation was being practiced.
- When the default mode activated, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were concurrently activated in experienced meditators, helping them suppress “me” thoughts and keep their minds more focused.
- Their brains remained more alert and may develop a “new default mode” in which they maintain more present-centered awareness and less self-centered focus (fewer disruptive thoughts and distractions).
What this implies, of course, is that meditation helps you train your brain to “default” in a way that is more calm, aware, open, and capable of focus. This training could be particularly useful if you’re the type of person whose brain defaults to anxiety or scattered thoughts that create an inability to focus on the work at hand. Over time, regularly practicing meditation has been shown to provide the following benefits:
- Increase the volume of gray matter in the insula (an emotional center), hippocampus (your memory center), and prefrontal cortex (executive functioning), all of which benefit writing. Increases in grey matter mean increases in the amount of connections each cell is receiving, so you have thus increased your area for creating yet more writing frameworks.
- Boost attention, compassion, and empathy; reduce anxiety, phobias, and insomnia.
- Increase the power and reach of fast-gamma-range brainwaves, supercharging large numbers of neurons to fire rhythmically.
- Reduce cortical thinning due to aging; decrease the amount of stress-related cortisol, which is also aging.
And it doesn’t matter what type of meditation you pursue—they’re all good for your brain. Obviously short-term benefits include quieting the mind, focusing on the present, and sharpening focus; long-term benefits help you more easily transition from a distracted state to a creative space in which ideas flow. Meditating on a regular basis is like building muscle strength: The more you train your brain to meditate, the better you will be able to use meditation as a way to transition into a more focused and receptive mental state.
It doesn’t have to be a formal twenty-minute session. Try closing your eyes, breathing slowly in and out, and clearing your “brain space” by dismissing thoughts as they arise for five minutes a day; then amp up to ten minutes and keep extending your “meditation break” until you find a number that leaves you feeling refreshed, renewed, receptive, and ready to fire up your brain.
Susan Reynolds is the author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. She also coauthored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, and Train Your Brain to Get Rich.