Neuroscience and Mindfulness Meditation
In recent years, new technology has allowed scientists to measure changes in the brain more accurately than ever before. With the increasing sophistication of our ability to observe the brain has come the discovery that even adult brains are not fixed or hardwired but are capable of change and renewal. Learning and practising a new skill actually grows parts of the brain through a phenomenon known as ‘neuroplasticity’.
In addition, studies of this phenomenon with both experienced and novice meditators tells us something quite remarkable – by using meditation, we can alter the physical structure of our own brains.
Something we now know is that one of the major improvements gained from meditation is an increase in white matter, the brain's connective channels. After four weeks of mindfulness training, researchers have found that white matter sections of the brain had grown larger. Impressively, the growth of white matter in the brain as a result of meditation led to an objective improvement in mood for people in the study.
If that wasn't enough, the build-up of white matter allows different sections of the brain to communicate more effectively with each other. We already knew that mindfulness meditation helps people to regulate emotions and better manage stress – perhaps we now know why. It may well be because the brain isn't struggling to understand what emotion you're feeling, and with better recognition comes better management.
This neuroplasticity is key to keeping our brains supple, even later in life. A recent study discovered that the brains of meditators had the same cortical thickness as those of much younger people. Meditation also appeared to circumvent the shrinkage of brain matter that affects people as they grow older.
This maintaining of brain mass meant meditator’s brains appeared as much as 7 years “younger” than their actual age. In addition, attention, body awareness and sensory awareness were all at better levels than those who did not practice meditation.
In a previous post we touched on the issue of ‘amygdala hijack’. This is the ‘fight or flight’ reaction primates developed in response to danger - but our brains can react to extreme stress in the same way, leading to irrational moments or furious outbursts.
Using MRI scanners, scientists have determined that those who practice mindfulness meditation have smaller amygdalas than those who do not. This may tell us something about reduced stress levels enjoyed by meditators, and in particular their relatively increased ability to manage stress in day to day life without feeling overwhelmed by it. Regular meditators also have a more developed hippocampus, a part of the brain typically associated with stress hormones and ways of controlling them.
Pain, and age
MRI scans show that people who followed an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation had thicker dorsal anterior cingulates. This means they were able to regulate their response to pain, specifically their emotional reaction to that pain. We all know that damage to our bodies hurts more when we are hyperfocused on that damage. Mindfulness allows us to draw that focus away and “feel” less pain.
Writing for Calm, Avi Craimer notes:
“The other scientific finding I love is the link between increased gamma waves and loving-kindness or compassion meditation. Gamma waves are the fastest brain waves, oscillating at a frequency of 25-100 times per second. A study of Tibetan Monks highly practiced in loving-kindness meditation found their gamma waves were off the charts, higher than any humans previously recorded. This led to one of the monks, Matthieu Ricard, being dubbed ‘the happiest man in the world’.”