Monday, June 28, 2010

Meditation and the Brain

My meditation practice has become a bit sporadic the past month or so, due to a variety of other activities clamoring for my time. Believing it is the quality of awareness in all the moments of our lives that's most important, I’d amped up my efforts to maintain a meditative focus throughout my days.

Although I was somewhat successful, after a few weeks I began to notice a subtle shift in the quality of my overall experience. Nothing extreme occurred. I didn’t become depressed or cranky. However, I did find myself a bit less present to the here and now. My inner calm was more precarious, and my sense of wonder and joy a bit less palpable than before.

Coincidentally, the June issue of The Yoga Journal shed some light on this topic. In an article entitled Your Brain On Meditation, author and educator, Kelly McGonigal, explored the recent technological advances that are increasing our understanding of the effects of meditation on the brain.

It’s long been known that meditation can enhance one’s subjective experience of joy, equanimity, and interconnectedness. Researchers had also demonstrated meditation’s link to overall physical health, immune system functioning, and pain management.

But science has moved into new areas recently. Using MRIs, EEGs and fMRIs, researchers have begun to track actual changes in the structure and function of the brains of folks who meditate.
Recent findings include:
  • Increased gray matter in regions of the brain important for attention, emotional regulation and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter is thought to make an area of the brain more responsive and efficient.
  • Decreased density in the amygdala, a brain region activated by stress. It had already been established that the amygdala could grow larger and more reactive through the experience of chronic stress and trauma, but research has now begun to show that changes can go the other way, as well.
  • Greater activity in portions of the brain critical for the particular method of meditation employed. This responsiveness continues beyond the meditation session, as the brain becomes better able to do what it's asked to do.
It seems that our brains are not fixed in adulthood after all, but open to change. As Eileen Luders, a researcher in the Department of Neurology at UCLA School of Medicine puts it, “everything we do, and every experience we have, actually changes the brain.”

Folks who meditate using concentrative techniques fire up the brain centers involved in attention, thereby developing a greater ability to focus. Likewise, an emphasis on compassion, joy, or tranquility encourages activity and responsiveness in the portions of the brain that govern these functions, with a corresponding increase in proficiency.

The really exciting news is that such changes can occur relatively quickly. Many of these studies focused on beginning meditators, who had engaged in as little as a 7 or 8 week course. Benefits increased with experience.

“It’s a simple matter of training,” writes McGonigal. “Like anything that requires practice, meditation is a training program for the brain.”

I am in training. Those experiences and attitudes I reinforce grow stronger, more resilient. Though I continue to feel that what happens outside specific meditation periods is most important, I’ve learned once again that, for me, structured meditation time is invaluable.

I’ve now resumed my regular meditation practice. I set aside time specifically to open to joy, to wonder, and to the Divine. What’s not to love about that?!!

Here's to us all finding ways to sculpt a brain that helps us live the life we want to live, open to Spirit and joy.

Loanne Marie

P.S. There are many misconceptions about meditation. Folks often give it a try, only to abandon the process due to the busyness of their minds. They conclude, “I just can’t meditate”. Untrue. While there are some approaches that fit an individual’s temperament better than others, everyone can meditate.

I’ll be offering a free, one-time class to help beginning meditators get started. If this idea appeals to you, please send me an email.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. You and readers might be interested in the book Zen and the Brain. It is by a neurologist (I apologize that I cannot remember his name) that was a medical professor in the training of Colorado's own Dr. Patrick Sternberg.

Loanne Marie said...

According to amazon, his name is James H. Austin. Amazon has some reviews of the book that are quite interesting. Austin is described as a man of science who sought to view his personal experiences with meditative states through the lens of science.

Thanks for writing!

Anonymous said...

Try My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, PH.D. It wa an eye-opener for me.

Loanne Marie said...

Lots and lots of info that this thing called meditation really works, eh? Of course, what really tells us it works is that our lives become transformed. That's the proof that sits best.

Thanks for writing!

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Leia Marie