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Some of the Neuroscience Behind the Practice of Meditation

20.3.2017

The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as an intervention for some kinds of depression.

 

And whether it’s to help us through a period of stress, or to deal with everyday feelings and emotions, doctors are now routinely suggesting that their patients might like to try mindfulness meditation. The perceived benefits of this include: reduced stress, improved concentration, better self-awareness, less anxiety, better control over depression, and more empathy for others. What effect does meditation have directly on the brain to achieve such outcomes?

 

Meditation and relaxation

Meditation slows brain waves and mind wandering

Mindfulness meditation often begins with turning attention to the breath and sensations in the body. You don’t try to fight with your thoughts or to stop them, instead you allow them to ebb and flow without paying attention to them.

 

Using neural scanning, neuroscientists can look more closely at what goes on in the brain at such times. One obvious effect is the decrease in brain waves . Your brain is processing less information so it makes sense that the brain becomes less active. As your brain becomes more focused on what’s happening now, more positive and kindly attitudes may begin to emerge. By observing the flow of thoughts one often becomes more compassionate towards oneself, more understanding of one’s own regrets and anxieties.

 

Research suggests that we’re able to do this because the ‘me’ centres of the brain (the ‘monkey brain’ - as it’s often referred to) become less active as the mind becomes more centred on the present moment and stops wondering and ruminating. These brain systems are collectively known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) and there is now evidence that meditation tunes down the DMN. This is one of the ways that we can train the brain to work in ways that benefit our mental health through meditation.

Meditation increases grey matter

Brain grey matter contains many of the neurons involved in forming our sensory perceptions, movements, memories, feelings and decision-making skills. The density of grey matter is therefore important in determining the health of the brain.

 

We don’t completely know the mechanisms at play, but in a ground breaking study, carried out at Harvard, it was found that just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation increased the volume of grey matter. Neuroimaging was used to monitor patients during an 8-week MBSR course and a measurable increase in grey matter was found.

Britta Holzel, the author of the paper said:

‘It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.’

Meditation decreases the size of the amygdala

Several other studies have found that mindfulness practice shrinks the amygdala - part of the brain involved in the experience of fearful and anxious emotions. The amygdala is a crucial part of the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, and this finding may be part of the reason why people who practice mindfulness report a reduction in depressive and anxious thoughts.

 

For more information about how mindfulness could change your life contact rachel@mindfulnessworks.com or call (+44) 01223 750660