A Harvard neuroscientist reveals three ways meditation changes your brain
by Drake Baer
Mindfulness meditation is incredibly popular right now.
While there is an ever-increasing amount of academic research around the practice and its effects, scientists are still figuring out what precisely is happening when people meditate, and what effects that behavior has on the brain.
Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, a leading researcher in the field, is one of the first to show that meditation practice produces structural changes in the brain.
In 2005, her team was the first to show how long-term meditation practice correlates with cortical thickening in brain areas associated with attention, sensory processing, and interoception (the awareness someone has about the physiological state of their body).
In a 2011 paper, she found that people who learned meditation for the first time in an eight-week course had increases in gray matter concentration in areas of the brain associated with “learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”
The research suggests that “changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing,” Lazar says.
Those changes to brain structure come with big changes in mental activity. Lazar revealed a few of them to Tech Insider:
• Understanding yourself (and other people too). Meditation increases your awareness of “minimally conscious thoughts and emotions,” or quieter emotions that otherwise go unnoticed. “You have probably experienced many emotions that you’re not even aware of,” Lazar says. “If you understand them in yourself, you’ll understand them better in other people.”
• Emotional strength. When you have a higher resolution image of your emotional landscape, then you’re less to be swayed by each individual feeling. “If you have a better handle of all the different emotions, you realize, ‘Ok, this emotion isn’t useful,'” Lazar says. “It gives you more information, and information is power.”
• Getting less freaked out by stress. “You’re less likely to make a rash decision,” Lazar says. “You’re less stressed, you’re less caught up in the hullabaloo around you. I think that’s important regardless of what you do. it plays into quality of life. I still get stressed, but it takes more to make me stressed out.”
Lazar is careful to note that your brain changes when you learn anything, be it a second language or juggling. Same with meditation: though it can be an intimidatingly abstract activity when you first encounter it, mindfulness meditation is an exercise that you can learn to get better at, just like swinging at a baseball.
It works like this.
“You pick one object,” Lazar says. “For many people, it’s breathing sensations. It doesn’t have to be that, but it’s the most common thing to start with. You notice that, and your mind is going to get bored, and it’s going to start wandering, and then you realize, oh, my mind is starting to wander, and bring it back to breath.”
Instead of manipulating a bat to hit a ball, Lazar says that you’re using two of the mind’s go-to instruments: attention and metacognition, or your awareness of your own thoughts.
“Attention helps you stay focused, and metacognition helps you to see all the minimally conscious content,” Lazar says. “You think, this is boring, but what else is happening? You start to notice little thoughts and feeling happening in the back. They’re happening all the time, and we miss them 80% or 90% of the time. You notice there’s a lot more going on that you never saw before.”
Lazar has had a personal practice for nearly two decades, but she fell into meditation unexpectedly. When she and a friend over-trained for the Boston Marathon and ended up hurting themselves, Lazar started going to yoga to help recover.
Then she got into mindfulness meditation. “It was really clear that something in my brain had changed,” she tells Tech Insider. “I was noticing things I hadn’t noticed before, and I was less reactive to things that would piss me off.”
Lazar is careful to note that meditation is not a cure-all, in the same way that while exercise is a terrifically excellent thing to do for yourself, it’s not the only thing you should be doing for your overall well-being.
“It’s not you start meditation and you become a Buddhist monk,” Lazar says. “It will help promote attention and metacognition. The benefits are real and beneficial, but it’s not like you become a super person because of this.”
Watch Lazar’s 2011 TedX talk on meditation’s effects on the brain below.
The health benefits are very real. But few understand how it affects the mind.
After my last weekend of yoga teacher training, a friend asked me at dinner, “Why do you do yoga? So you can learn to do what, headstands?”
Why do people do yoga?
More than 90% of people who come to yoga do so for physical exercise, improved health, or stress management, but for most people, their primary reason for doing yoga will change. One study found that two-thirds of yoga students and 85% of yoga teachers have a change of heart regarding why they practice yoga—most often changing to spirituality or self-actualization, a sense of fulfilling their potential. The practice of yoga offers far more than physical postures and headstands—there is self-reflection, the practice of kindness and compassion, and continued growth and awareness of yourself and others.
Yet the health benefits are very real: Yes, yoga can increase your flexibility, improve your balance, and decrease your cholesterol. A recent review in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology showed that yoga reduces the risk of heart disease as much as conventional exercise (link is external). On average, yoga participants lost five pounds, decreased their blood pressure, and lowered their low-density (“bad”) cholesterol by 12 points. There is a vast and growing body of research on how yoga (link is external) improves health concerns including chronic pain, fatigue, obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, weight loss, and more.
As a psychiatrist, though, I am also naturally interested in the brain. While most people intuitively get that yoga reduces depression, stress and anxiety, most people—even physicians and scientists—are typically surprised to find out that yoga changes the brain.
A new, May 2015 study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain to show that yoga protects the brain from the decline in gray matter brain volume as we age. People with more yoga experience had brain volumes on par with much younger people. [In the figure to the left, red triangles represent people who have zero yoga experience and filled circles are people who practice yoga with varying frequency]. This finding has also been true in brain imaging studies of people who meditate (link is external). In other words, yoga could protect your brain from shrinking as you get older.
Even more interesting, the protection of this gray matter brain volume is mostly in the left hemisphere, the side of your brain associated with positive emotions and experiences and parasympathetic nervous system activity—your “rest and digest” relaxation system. Emotions like joy and happiness have exclusively more activity in the left hemisphere of the brain on positive emission tomography (PET) brain scans.
But the truth is that the practice of yoga is not just about changing the brain, the body, headstands, or even about gaining greater joy or happiness. If it were, it’d be just like another spinning class or weight-training at the gym. Yoga aims toward transcendence of all those things. In a culture in which we rush from one day to the next, constantly trying to change our health, body, or emotions, or to plan the future, yoga opens up the possibility of connecting to what we already have—to who we already are.
As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron explains:
“When we start to meditate…we often think that somehow we’re going to improve, which is a subtle aggression against who we really are.
“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest….We recognize our capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds. We experience moments of being right here that feel simple, direct, and uncluttered.”
So, why do I practice yoga? The answer can be complex and personal, but it can also be simple and universal: Because I want to be present. Because I want to be present not just on my mat but also to myself and the people—the community— around me.
Yoga can change the heart—but we’re not just talking about blood pressure.
Marlynn Wei, MD, JD (link is external) is a psychiatrist and author in New York working on the upcoming yoga book along with co-author Harvard psychiatrist James E. Groves, MD.
Copyright Marlynn H. Wei, MD, PLLC © 2015
Dedicated to the yoga teachers (Ossi Raveh (link is external), Be Shakti, (link is external) Dennis Teston (link is external), Mikki Raveh, Allegra Romita, and many more) and fellow teachers-in-training at the Brooklyn Yoga Project (link is external)—a community that befriends who we already are.
Park CL, et al. Why practice yoga? Practitioners’ motivations for adopting and maintaining yoga practice. J Health Psychol. 2014 Jul 16. pii: 1359105314541314.
Villemure C, et al. Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015; 9: 281.
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