Science Behind Meditation

During meditation
Your mind gets a break!
The benefits of meditation have been known for millenia, what is actually happening from a physiological and neurological POV has not been fully understood. With recent advancements in neuroscience and imaging technology remarkable discoveries into the science of meditation are being made daily. One of the most astounding findings is that meditation actually changes the physical structure of the brain as well as it’s functionality (via connections). Below is just a small sampling of areas of the brain that have been the subject of recent research.

The highest evolved part of the brain, the frontal lobe is responsible for planning, discerning, judging, list making, attention and self-conscious awareness.
During meditation, the frontal lobe essentially goes “off-line.”
Read: quiet

The parietal lobe processes sensory information to build a picture of the surroundings; it also helps to orient oneself in time and space.
During meditation, the parietal lobe slows down significantly.
Read: less distraction

The thalamus is the gate-keeper for the senses; it contributes to our perception of things. It funnels sensory data deeper into the brain and stops other signals (involved in fight or flight response).
During meditation, information from the thalamus is slowed down.
Read: less reactive

The reticular formation is a network of nerve pathways and is the brain’s sentry; it receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond.
During meditation, activity is dialed down.
Read: stability

After meditation
You reap amazing benefits!
There are many changes in brain function after just 8 weeks of meditation that significantly reduce anxiety. One of the most important findings is the fact that the amygdala (associated with fear and emotions and initiates the fight or flight response) shrinks while the prefrontal cortex (PFC) thickens (PFC is associated with higher thinking, rational decision making, organization and ability to focus); thus the connections between the amygdala and other regions of the brain get weaker (less anxiety) and other connections associated with attention and concentration get stronger. 1, 2

Meditation has a positive effect on the reduction of the perception of pain…meaning that experienced meditators report less pain than meditators even though brain scans show an increase in activity in the areas of the brain that are associated with pain. This is thought to be due to the fact that two brain centers, the anterior cingulate cortex and part of the prefrontal cortex, whose connection associates unpleasantness with pain, appears to become uncoupled, thus reducing the perception of pain.3

Recent neuro-anatomical imaging research shows an increase in orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions in experienced meditators. These regions of the brain have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control; larger volumes in these brain regions might account for meditators’ singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.

Practice required
You get back what you put in!
There is a direct correlation between the scale of change and the number of hours a person practices. Practicing 15-20 minutes a day, every day, will offer significantly better results than practicing 3 days a week for 5 minutes per sitting.

1. Lisa A. Kilpatrick,1,3 Brandall Y. Suyenobu, et al Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training on Intrinsic Brain Connectivity.. Neuroimage. 2011 May 1; 56(1): 290-298.
Manna A1, Raffone A, Perrucci MG, et al. Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation. Brain Res Bull. 2010 Apr 29;82(1-2):46-56.
2. F. Zeidana, J.A. Grantb, et al. Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters; Volume 520, Issue 2, 29 June 2012, Pages 165-173.
3. Eileen Ludersa, Arthur W. Toga, et al. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. NeuroImage. Volume 45, Issue 3, 15 April 2009, Pages 672-678