We know meditation can improve our well-being, but do you know how? If you already practice meditation then you know, from experience, about meditation’s many benefits to the brain and body. However, science just recently caught up with the technical side of the answer.
During the past few decades, researchers conducted a range of studies to examine exactly how we react to meditation — with fascinating results. Meditation physically changes the way our brains function to improve our lives in lasting ways. So how does it work? Read on to find out.
How Meditation Alters Your Brain Waves
Meditating for 20 minutes — even if it’s your first time — can trigger a change in your brain waves. Your brain constantly fires electrical impulses to convey information through the synapses between nerve cells. The synchronization of those impulses forms your brain waves, which in turn influence your state of mind. Meditation can shift you from one brain wave frequency to another. Human brains produce multiple brain wave frequencies, including:
- Beta Waves: The biggest difference between your everyday brain and your meditating brain is the presence of beta waves. Beta waves indicate a brain is actively engaged, likely processing information and then using that to make decisions or solve problems. In your meditating brain, beta waves decrease dramatically.
- Alpha Waves: As the level of beta waves declines during meditation and your brain stops its normal information-processing activities, the level of alpha waves rises. Alpha waves move more slowly, indicating the brain is in a wakeful, yet resting state. An increase in alpha waves often signals relaxation and a focus on the present moment.
- Theta Waves: When you slip into a deep meditation, studies show an increase of theta waves in the frontal and middle parts of the brain. Theta waves also dominate our brains during sleep. When your brain operates on theta waves, it focuses on internal signals instead of processing external stimuli.
How Meditation Relaxes Your Brain
Different sections of the brain control different responses and activities. As your brain relaxes and stops focusing on outside stressors, each section begins to slow down its activity and absorb less input. That means something a little different for each section:
- Frontal Lobe: Your frontal lobe is the latest addition to the human brain — although the frontal cortex dates back nearly two million years. It manages our reasoning, our emotions, and our sense of self. During meditation, this part of the brain relaxes and its overall function decreases.
- Parietal Lobe: Your parietal lobe processes sensory information to help you understand the world around you on a basic level. It helps you orient yourself in regards to your surroundings. When you meditate, activity in the parietal lobe declines and you become less aware of what’s happening around you.
- Thalamus: Your thalamus takes incoming sensory information and either passes it on to the cerebral cortex for interpretation or stops it moving further. By reducing thalamus function, meditation limits the amount of information you receive from your surroundings.
- Reticular Formation: Your reticular formation catches stimuli even before the thalamus and determines what information moves forward, making it a crucial factor in your level of alertness. During meditation, the reticular formation lowers your level of alertness to external stimulation.
Long-Term Brain Benefits of Meditation
In addition to what happens inside your brain in a single moment, a regular meditative practice can produce lasting benefits for your brain that extend beyond the confines of your meditation session. However, regular is the key word here because tangible results require daily meditation. Key benefits include:
- Increased Gray Matter: You likely already know the term gray matter, which refers to your brain cells. As you age, you naturally begin to lose gray matter. You can combat this natural process by increasing your brain cells through meditation. Studies show that experienced meditators have more gray matter in their brains than people who don’t meditate.
- Improved Creativity: From painting a picture to solving a tricky problem, creativity provides an essential tool as you navigate life. Meditation can help you unlock your creative side. Even a short meditative practice can help you function better in situations that require a slightly more creative approach, according to a 2014 study.
- Enhanced Mood: We already know meditation helps us manage stress better, but we know much less about how that happens. A 2008 study of Buddhist monks found meditation alters brain structure and function in a way that made the monks less beholden to emotional responses and more able to stay in a state of well-being. The study participants also showed improved focus and cognition as a side effect of their meditative practice.
- Sharpened Memory: Another long-lasting benefit of meditation is a reduced likelihood of forgetfulness. When your brain functions in top shape, it can more easily store and recall information. After just four days of meditation training, one study’s participants with no previous meditative experience demonstrated an improved working memory and executive function.
- Improved Focus: By improving your ability to regulate your own emotional states, meditation also allows you to sharpen your focus. Research found improved focus as one direct benefit of a sustained meditative practice. According to the same four-day study noted above, you may experience an improved ability to focus with meditation so you can more easily brush aside intrusive thoughts and emotional responses.
If you’re interested in starting your own meditative practice — or returning to meditation after a hiatus — you’ll find plenty of resources to help. You can check out the other articles in this series on loving-kindness and mindfulness meditation or try one of the many free apps featuring guided meditation to log your meditative practices. If you want more personal guidance in your meditation journey, use this directory to locate meditation centers near you.