An MD Explains Your Brain On Meditation (Expert Article)
The Power of the Brain
For a long time scientists thought the brain was static. Now it is known that every day new axons and dendrites form synapses and every act of learning involves newly minted brain cells and alterations in the brain circuits. The more wide ranging and complex the altered neuronal networks, called neuroplasticity, the more it is correlated with a powerful experience.
Therefore, combining physical postures or movements with focused concentration and observation of breath, such as in yoga and Tai Chi, brings about a powerful experience by enlarging the neuroplastic brain circuits. Listening to sounds, singing, mantra, or moving to music makes the brain circuit even broader and more powerful by utilizing the unique neuroplastic benefits of sound and music. (see post)
Since every conscious mental event changes the brain, focused concentration, especially with large multi sensory circuits, can have major effects on brain structures. Meditation, which is focused concentration with specific methods, has significant positive effects on physical and emotional health; but it is not exactly clear why.
The various meditation techniques each affect specific brain regions, strengthening and modifying brain circuits related to compassion, relaxation, stress reduction, and increased concentration.
I wrote a summary of the effects of meditation on the brain a year ago.(For more details click here).
The following is a brief summary of meditation brain research as of June 2012’s; then, an update of the new information this year:
Compassion meditation increased gamma oscillations and synchrony, and increased activity in regions of empathy. It increased thalamus filtering of sensory-motor signals.
Mindfulness meditation increased the number of neurons, the axon density, the amount of myelin and the number of connections in brain regions related to concentration and emotion. It decreased amygdala regions of stress and increased hippocampus regions of memory.
Transcendental meditation ™ increased synchronous oscillations throughout the brain. With teens that have high blood pressure, it showed positive heart effects, including smaller left ventricle and decreased blood pressure.
Tai Chi in the elderly increased growth factors that stimulate new brain cells. They also had increased brain volume and better memory and thinking.
All Types of Meditation showed changes in the Default Mode Network (DMN), the brain circuit thought to most closely relate to the “sense of who we are” including non-focused internal thought, daydreaming, wondering, remembering, future planning, and thinking about others. In all meditation the DMN is altered—briefly in novices and permanently in experienced meditators— with increased focus and self-monitoring of thought and emotion and increased control of behavior and thought.
Meditation decreased anxiety in cancer patients. It generally helped decrease anxiety, depression and pain. It decreased stress and increased performance for soldiers.
All types of meditation increased the gyrification or folding of the cortex (correlated with increased brain circuit effectiveness)—the longer the practice the more the gyrification
New Research This Year
This year significant findings appeared related to the effects of meditation on important aspects of molecular cellular biology. One study showed alteration of 68 genes related to cellular energy metabolism. Other results showed decreased important immune inflammatory factors interleukin 6, and NF-kappaB, and an increase of the antiviral factor IRF1. Others showed a decreased of response to local skin inflammation, decreased stress hormones, and fewer colds.
The effects of meditation on emotional stability persisted even when not meditating.
TM significantly reduced posttraumatic stress in African refugees.
Yoga helped decrease the deadly cardiac arrhythmia atrial fibrillation.
Compassion and mindfulness meditations showed strong response to human suffering in the first, and more stability for all emotion in the latter.
Tai Chi significantly helped Parkinson’s patients and also lowered inflammation factor interleukin 6.
Meditation again helped cancer patients and those with other sources of pain.
Meditation practice trains a specific muscle for mental concentration…stimulating increased memory, creativity and cognitive abilities. The relaxation effects have deep physiological effects on genes, inflammation and cellular metabolism.
The recent studies on inflammation and immune function begin to tackle the important question of how the positive health and psychological effects of meditation occur.
The Brain, Psychedelics, and Consciousness
The advanced meditation states appear to have even greater benefits, but these mechanisms are currently unknown. There is very little known about the brain effects of advanced states of meditation described in a variety of traditions— spiritual experiences that in some ways resemble the effects of psychedelics including changes in body consciousness, alterations of the experience of time and space, and stimulation of long term changes in spiritually based behavior.
With recent laboratory research triggering out of body experiences with virtual reality systems, it appears that body consciousness can be separated from the sense of “I.” This change in body consciousness can occur in meditation, crisis situations, fasting, and other spiritual practices.
Another lead in finding mechanisms for the action of advanced meditation might come from studying sleep. The observation that EEG patterns of advanced meditators are similar to stage IV deep sleep is intriguing, because deep sleep is noted to have major health benefits, including increased learning and less overall mortality.
A state with the synergy of deep sleep that occurs during alert consciousness surely has very important properties.
Hopefully, soon, some progress can be made in these areas and we can come to accept with even deeper clarity that the brain on meditation is powerful- to say the least.
Photo by: Sebastien