What is meditation?
What do you think of when you hear the word 'meditation'? Most likely, you're picturing someone very zen and disciplined - perhaps sitting cross legged under a tree. If you don't know much about meditation, it's very possible that you're thinking of something difficult, a little bit hippy-ish and, most likely, 'not for me'.
In reality, meditation doesn't have to look anything like that. It comes in many shapes and sizes, and is something we can all benefit from.
Broadly, meditation refers to a set of techniques, designed to foster a heightened state of awareness and focused attention. When we meditate, we become more aware of the thoughts running through our minds and our bodily sensations. We practice observing these things without judgement, and anchoring our awareness onto the breath, the body or a mantra or visualisation.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn't about emptying your mind of thoughts, but simply becoming aware of the thoughts that come up, and gaining some distance from them: noticing when our mind is wandering and gently bringing our attention back to our anchor.
How does meditation affect the brain?
Meditation was historically understood as a spiritual practice, and in many ways it still is. However, in recent years, interest in meditation has proliferated in the scientific community, with a growing number of studies highlighting the impact of meditation and mindfulness on the brain. Here are some of their key findings.
1. Meditation may slow down the effects of ageing.
When we age, we lose grey matter in our brains. Several studies have found that the 'brain age' of long-term meditators (i.e. how much grey matter they have) tends to be much younger than those who don't meditate.
2. Meditation reduces activity in the 'me' centers of the brain, which may be associated with depression.
There's an area in the brain known as the Default Mode Network or 'me center', so called because it's responsible for self-referential thoughts (i.e. thinking about ourselves) and mind wandering.
Both self-referential thinking and mind-wandering tend to be more often associated with negative thoughts: ruminating about the past, for example, or being self-critical.
When you meditate, you're encouraged to notice when your mind is wandering and refocus your attention to your anchor. Unsurprisingly, then, research shows that regular meditation decreases activity in the DMN network, which may make you less likely to experience negative thinking patterns.
3. Meditation shrinks the volume of the amygdala, associated with fear and anxiety.
Meditation has been shown to impact the volume of several key areas of the brain. One significant finding is a reduction of volume of the amygdala: an ancient part of the brain, associated with stress and anxiety, and with impulsivity.
Meditation decreases activity in the amygdala, and instead strengthens connections between the amygdala and the frontal cortex: a more recently developed part of the brain, associated with rational thinking and decision-making.
Meditation is also thought to increase the volume of other key areas of the brain, like the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory) and parts that play a role in emotion regulation.
Meditation has so many benefits for our bodies and minds. When we meditate regularly, we can actually change the structure of our brains to help us sleep better, think more positively and feel happier.
Not sure where to start? Why not try one of our meditation classes on the MindLabs app.