50 Shades of Zen: Benefits of Meditation, Part 1
By: Dave Asprey
March 18, 2015
Meditation is good for you, and you probably already know that intuitively. After all, it’s hard to argue that focusing calmly on resolving unhelpful stress or relieving pain is anything other than a worthwhile pursuit. Everyone talks about the benefits of meditation.
But you may ask yourself: can simply sitting in quiet reflection a few times a week really have such extraordinary benefits?
There is ample proof that it does [1-25].
This post focuses on the benefits and effects of meditation on the brain. It is the first of a series of science posts exploring the extensive research behind the benefits of meditation on your mind and body.
Just want to hear the best hacks for getting more out of your meditation in less time? Read here.
Meditation Strengthens Your Brain’s Ability To Focus and Think Calmly Under Pressure
Meditation is one type of exercise for the brain.
Meditation physically changes the size and shape of structures in the brain. Think of it like strength training to grow stronger, more shapely muscles. This is my favorite benefit of meditation of any form. Well, except for kicking ass…that’s a better benefit. 🙂
People who practice meditation develop more folds, or greater “gyrification”, in the outer layer of the brain—a trait that’s highly correlated with intelligence across species. [[i], [ii], [iii]] More folds help the brain process information, in part by providing more surface area to neurons (the cells that transmit information through the brain and nervous system) within the same skull volume. Aging flattens these folds—but meditation slows this process, and the extent of brain folding increases the longer you practice.[[iv]]
Meditation also thickens areas of the cortex and insula—regions associated with complex thought, bodily awareness, concentration, and problem solving—that also typically thin with age.[[v]]
Meditation’s Affect On Your Amygdala
In addition to up-regulating parts of the brain that make us calmer and more thoughtful, meditation also shrinks and quiets the amygdala, the “fight or flight” response center that interferes with higher-order thought processes.[[vi]] It takes a special kind of person to do math problems, for instance, when the amygdala is shrieking “Lion! Run!!”
It’s this part of the brain that Pavlov activated in his “fear conditioning” experiments that elicited fear responses in dogs when they heard a specific sound, even when they didn’t receive an electric shock they had been trained to associate with it.[[vii]] This conditioning, which is involuntary and difficult to undo later in life, doesn’t happen in animals whose amygdala are damaged.[[viii]]
It’s easy to see how this brain organ can be a lifelong source of unwarranted fear and anxiety (after all, we’re rarely chased by lions in our modern world), and why a meditation practice that takes the amygdala off high alert can soothe the nerves.
Recent research from Emory University gives a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between meditation practice, amygdala activity, and overall mental health.[[ix]] The trial found that adults who practiced mindfulness meditation (the type that promotes heightened awareness and non-judgment) had reduced amygdala activity as compared to controls when exposed to images that were either positive, neutral or emotionally negative in tone.
This finding supports the notion that meditation enhances emotional stability by down regulating the amygdala. What’s surprising are the results from a second group in the study who practiced “compassion meditation”, in which they learned to turn negative emotions and thoughts into positive ones with the goal of alleviating suffering for yourself and others.
These individuals also had reduced amygdala activity in response to positive and neutral images, but heightened activity upon viewing images of human suffering, presumably because they had become more attuned to others’ needs through their compassion training. Importantly, despite an uptick in amygdala activity showing they were highly attentive to images of human suffering, the compassionate meditators had lower depression scores after viewing the images.
This finding suggests that increased compassion toward others may increase your sense of well-being even in the presence of a strong and possibly negative emotional response.
What Does This Mean For Every Day Life?
This is one reason it doesn’t serve you to be a jerk on social media sites even when you disagree with the other party. When you attack them, you’re lowering your own compassion, and making yourself more vulnerable to your own negative emotions.
Be kind to other people (or ignore them) instead of responding, and you’ll be a better person for it.
Meditation can help you do this by keeping you calm when someone is rude to you online – or in person, for that matter. 🙂
Spoiler alert: This post is part 1 of a science of meditation series, so check back for parts 2 and 3 to come. To learn how to hack your meditation practice to get more benefits in less time, read on here.
[i] Luders E, Kurth F, Mayer EA, et al. The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:1–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22393318
[ii] Stanford University Vista Lab Teaching Wiki: Brain Gyrification and its Significance http://white.stanford.edu/teach/index.php/Brain_Gyrification_and_its_Significance
[iii] US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation: What You Need to Know https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
[iv] US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation: What You Need to Know https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
[v] Lazar, S., et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.
Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893–1897. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/
[vi] Taren, A., A., et al. Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574, 22 May 2013. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0064574
[vii] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Vol. 23, Nos. 4/5, October 2003 http://www.ekmaninternational.com/media/4634/fearbrain%20amygdala%20joe%20ledoux.pdf
[viii] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Vol. 23, Nos. 4/5, October 2003 http://www.ekmaninternational.com/media/4634/fearbrain%20amygdala%20joe%20ledoux.pdf
[ix] Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, et al. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:1–15. http://www.tibet.emory.edu/documents/Desbordes_Provisional_amygdala.pdf
[x] Chen, K. W., Berger, C. C., Manheimer, E., Forde, D., Magidson, J., Dachman, L. and Lejuez, C. W. (2012), Meditative Therapies for Reducing Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Depress. Anxiety, 29: 545–562. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.21964/full
[xi] Marcus, M. T., and Zgierska, A. Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Substance Use Disorders: Part 1 (Editorial). Subst Abus. 2009 Oct–Dec; 30(4): 263.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818765/
[xii] Grecucci A, et al. Baseline and Strategic Effects behind Mindful Emotion Regulation: Behavioral and Physiological Investigation. PLoS One. 2015 Jan 15;10(1):e0116541. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0116541
[xiii] Goyal, M., et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being
A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368.http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1809754#Abstract
[xiv] Tang, Y., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. PNAS, 104(43), 17152-17156. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/43/17152.long
[xv] Carly M. Goldstein, Richard Josephson, Susan Xie, and Joel W. Hughes, “Current Perspectives on the Use of Meditation to Reduce Blood Pressure,” International Journal of Hypertension, vol. 2012, Article ID 578397, 11 pages, 2012. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijhy/2012/578397/cta/
[xvi] Anderson JW, Liu C, Kryscio RJ. Blood pressure response to transcendental meditation: a meta-analysis. Am J Hypertens. 2008 Mar;21(3):310-6.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18311126
[xvii] Wright, L., B., et al. Impact of Stress Reduction Interventions on Hostility and Ambulatory Systolic Blood Pressure in African American Adolescents. Journal of Black Psychology May 2011 vol. 37 no. 2 210-233. http://jbp.sagepub.com/content/37/2/210.full.pdf+html
[xviii] Prakhinkit, S., et al. Effects of Buddhism walking meditation on depression, functional fitness, and endothelium-dependent vasodilation in depressed elderly. J Altern Complement Med. 2014 May;20(5):411-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24372522
[xix] Ray, I., B., et al. Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence. Ochsner J. 2014 Winter;14(4):696-703.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/
[xx] Ray, I., B., et al. Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence. Ochsner J. 2014 Winter;14(4):696-703.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/
[xxi] Maglione-Garves, C., et al. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. University of New Mexico, Exercise Science Department.http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/stresscortisol.html
[xxii] Rosenkranz, M., A., et al. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Jan;27(1):174-84.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23092711
[xxiii] Morgan N, Irwin MR, Chung M, Wang C (2014) The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100903. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0100903
[xxiv] Davidson, R., J., Kabat-Zinn, J., et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine. 65(4), July 2003, p 564–570http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-07002-015
[xxv] Davidson, R., J., Kabat-Zinn, J., et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine. 65(4), July 2003, p 564–570http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-07002-015