Meditation, once seen as an ancient esoteric practise, is now increasingly used by psychotherapists and counsellors to help their clients regulate moods and become more aware of their thoughts and feelings.
But what is mindfulness meditation actually doing to your brain? Should you be worried or excited?
3 Things That Mindfulness Meditation is Doing to Your Brain
1. Mediation is anti-ageing your brain.
A 2015 studycarried out at the department of neurology at UCLA that scanned the brains of 50 long-term meditators (all had meditated from between 4 to 46 years) found they had a slower rate of grey matter atrophy than their non-meditating counterparts.
Why does this matter? Grey matter in the frontal cortex is associated with your working memory and your decision making skills. The human brain loses size and volume from around aged 20 onwards, and the the deterioration of grey matter in your brain means more functional impairment (making it harder to remember things and figure things out).
So meditation is basically preserving your brain, acting as an ‘anti-ager’, and making you less likely to experience mental illness and dementia.
Another similar study connected to Harvard medical school not only supported that mindfulness meditation was increasing the grey matter in the brains of meditators, but found that the 50-year old meditators in the sample group has the same amount of grey matter as an average 25 year-old.
Of course such studies have variables that mean much more research needs to be done. For example, were the meditators also living a more healthy lifestyle than their non-meditating counterparts? And would other forms of meditation besides the approved mindfulness meditation have similar affects? Regardless, the results are promising.
2. Meditation is making your brain grow in useful ways.
What if you’ve never meditated before? Is your grey matter beyond repair?
Increases in grey matter were found in several areas of the brain after only eight weeks of meditating. The changes were in parts of the brain like the hippocampus that are connected to learning, having a perspective, memory, and regulating emotions.
So not only might your brain grow in positive ways, but you might be calmer and clearer after only a few months of mindfulness. You’ll also feel better – regulating emotions is a part of psychological wellbeing, helping you avoid impulsiveness and mood swings.
3. Meditation is stopping your brain from chasing its own tail.
Feeling like your thoughts are scattered? The average mind spends around 50% of it’s awake time wandering, and it shows in brain scans – a network of brain areas called the ‘default-mode network’ (DMN) is activated, a network that is known for what is called ‘self referential processing’.
Why is a wandering brain a problem? The DMN network is associated to things like attention difficulties, anxiety, and ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease. A scattered mind is also connected to low moods.
But a 2011 study at the Yale Universitydid brain scans that showed that main bits of the DMN were reasonably deactivated in experienced mindfulness meditators. Instead, they had stronger connections happening between parts of the brain implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control.
The study had a very small sample group, but it does offer the idea that mindfulness meditation might make your brain more focussed and also make you a less self-obsessed, happier person in the process.
I’m interested. What sorts of therapists use meditation?
Many psychotherapists in the UK nowadays integrate practises of mindfulness into their work with clients.You might want to ask your therapist its something they have training with and let them know you are interested.