Meditation for a Healthier Brain and Better Learning

If you are not familiar with the word ‘neuroplasticity,’ you most likely do not read modern neuroscientific literature (what ARE you doing with your time?). The word—the phenomenon has been the force behind a revolution in neuroscience. Put simply, neuroplasticity is what allows experience to physically alter synaptic networks in the brain. It allows us to explain so much, from learning and memory to why sensory prostheses work.

Meditation has been touted for centuries by its practitioners for its peacefulness and its impact on one’s psychology and enjoyment of life. More recently these claims have been validated, quite conclusively, by analyzing the brain with fMRI. Meditation, it would appear, is an ON switch for the brain’s plasticity.

There are many forms of meditation. Under its umbrella are forms claimed to be suited for stress reduction, managing blood pressure, mental clarity, existential angst, depression, impulsiveness, etc. Tai chi and yoga are considered to be meditative practices as well. Experienced practitioners are wont to claim that meditation is not an ‘activity’ or something you ‘do,’ but that it is a way of living and thinking. Regardless of the semantics, there is a commonality to it all which has been studied.

The most researched form is called mindfulness meditation (and transcendental meditation, although it will not be our focus). The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center defines mindfulness meditation as: “…paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is…It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one’s inner experience.” One does not need to sit cross-legged on a cushy mat in total silence in order to meditate (although many claim these circumstances assist the beginner).

So what does mindfulness meditation do for the brain, exactly?

It shrinks the amygdala (Taren et al, 2013). This region of the brain is highly active during fear and other strong emotions, and is involved in initiating the famous ‘fight or flight’ response. As it shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker (Kang et al, 2013). This region is associated with concentration, decision-making, and awareness. The functional connectivity between regions of the brain also changes, to the effect of increasing one’s ability to recruit the pre-frontal cortex for high order processes, and downgrading the impact of primal emotions coming from the amygdala.

Mindfulness meditation also changes the gray matter in the brain (non-neuronal cells). It causes an increase in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, a region involved in learning/memory, emotional regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking (Hölzel et al, 2011). Through this mediation of the hippocampus, meditation relieves anxiety by allowing the thinker to better control self-referential thoughts (Zeidan et al, 2014).

The benefits do not stop in the brain. Transcendental meditation is linked with better cardiovascular health—even reversing the effects of coronary disease (Schneider et al, 2012). According to a study at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, meditation and other relaxation-response techniques could reduce one’s need for health care by 43 percent (Stahl et al, 2015)! The group in the study that practiced relaxation techniques was 43 percent less likely over the course of one year to require any sort of medical care.

In an excellent article on the brain’s need for downtime, Ferris Jabr with Scientific American writes: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future.” Given this, which is rapidly becoming common knowledge as more and more research supports the hypothesis, meditation can be seen not only as a means of compelling the brain to assist the thinker emotionally, in learning, and in thought-control, but also as a key to unlocking greater productivity and creativity. If you think that you’re too busy to meditate, you might need it more than anyone. The quasi-paradox also exists elsewhere: busy people who make high demand of their brain benefit from allotting time to exercise, socialization, and relaxation. A 6-hour workday fortified by these three will yield much more than a 12-hour non-stop workday.

Rather than taking breaks from work by watching funny videos or tending to social media, give your brain a real rest. If you can’t fit it into the workday, practice at night or in the mornings. How many other ways can you spend fifteen minutes and get all of the above in return?

For an excellent guide to meditation, watch this video and follow along.

1. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.

2. Kang D-H, Jo HJ, Jung WH, et al. The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2013;8(1):27-33. doi:10.1093/scan/nss056.

3. Robert H. Schneider, MD, FACC, Clarence E. Grim, MD, Maxwell V. Rainforth, PhD, Theodore Kotchen, MD, Sanford I. Nidich, EdD, Carolyn Gaylord-King, PhD, John W. Salerno, PhD, Jane Morley Kotchen, MD, MPH and Charles N. Alexander, PhD. Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 2012; 5:750-758. doi: 10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.112.967406

4. Stahl JE, Dossett ML, LaJoie AS, Denninger JW, Mehta DH, Goldman R, et al. (2015) Relaxation Response and Resiliency Training and Its Effect on Healthcare Resource Utilization. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0140212. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140212

5. Taren AA, Creswell JD, Gianaros PJ (2013) Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574

6. Zeidan F, Martucci KT, Kraft RA, McHaffie JG, Coghill RC. Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2014;9(6):751-759. doi:10.1093/scan/nst041.

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