Meditation: The Brain’s Treadmill
When the Bryn Mawr yoga instructor begins her session by uniting the voices of the class with the universal sound of ohm, scattered chuckles roll across the floor. Bowing to the light within, centering oneself and falling into the unconditional embrace of yoga is not a fundamental aspect of western lives. The mental facet of yoga falls under the mental training umbrella of meditation. Meditation is a practice that attempts to calm and focus the mind on one subject, releasing all other thoughts. Oftentimes this focus is geared inwards, towards the self. Meditation is gaining respect in western civilizations because a plethora of studies are showing it provides predictable, reproducible and measurable medical benefits. However, meditation is not ingrained in our culture; it is not a lifestyle like it is for monks under the Buddhist religion. Buddhist monks who dedicate their lives to meditation exhibit unbounded mental potential for mind-body control. From the far off peaks of the Himalayans to the Bryn Mawr yoga classroom, meditation is occurring and our minds and bodies are absorbing its side effects, which currently science can’t fully explain. How meditation affects the brain and alters our physiological states is a simple question without a simple answer.
The practices of the Buddhist religion focus meditative energy towards self-reflection. Happiness, anger, compassion and a variety of other emotional states are identified with and discovered within the self. The unyielding attention continuously applied to the mind allows for the development of new pathways within the brain. (1) When a student first learns how to play the piano, she practices her arpeggios over and over again and falters over the white and black keys repeatedly until new neurological connections are created enabling her to play with ease. This is the same scenario for one who meditates. Initially it is hard to focus and clear the mind, but with every moment of practice the neurological connections strengthen, powering the roots of mental control over the body.
Meditation has both immediate and long term physiological effects. (1) Immediate effects include lowering blood pressure and stress, alleviating pain and anxiety. The long term effects deal with the sculpting of brain structure due to a constant increase in brain activity. The alteration of the brain’s form and function through the increase or decrease in grey matter or the creation of new neurological pathways is called neuroplasticity. (4)
A study was conducted which compared the brain structures of two groups of individuals: those who meditate regularly and those who do not meditate at all. Their brains were scanned and the results were significant. The grey matter of the meditating group was highly developed and thick around cortical regions that relate to sensory and internal perception including auditory and visual perception in addition to the autonomic responses such as breathing and heart rate. (3) When an individual mediates, he is focusing on these same responses. The study also identified that increases of grey matter were far more prevalent in the right hemisphere. This is the hemisphere that deals with attention, the main focus of meditation. (3)
Another study compared Buddhist monks with over 10,000 hours of meditation under their belt to the average working individual with little to no meditation experience. Both groups were told to elicit a feeling of compassion. They meditated and focused on compassion, while fMRI scanners studied their brain activity. (4) The study found the monks’ brains to radiate shockingly high levels of high frequency activity waves called gamma waves. So high, that the levels had never been encountered before in neuroscience. (4) Gamma waves in the brain are suggested to be the leading indicator of higher brain function and activity. They control mental states, such as consciousness. (4) The more gamma waves, the more brain activity. Similarly, the more blood flow to an area of the brain, the higher brain activity. (1) These studies keep suggesting that the more hours of mental training allotted to the brain, the more neuroplasticitic changes will be seen and measured, grounding meditation in scientific realms.
From hypertension, depression and anxiety to fibromyalgia, from the immune system to the digestive system and the circulatory system, meditation has repetitively shown to significantly decrease stress, promote positive mental states, reduce pain, boost disease fighting anti-bodies, balance hormones and more. One study found that avid meditators paid an average health insurance bill of 50 percent less then the standard American. (3) Meditation alone has the power to alter the form and function of not only the brain, but the rest of the body as well. (5)
There is a plethora of research being done in the field of neuroscience involving the phenomenon of meditation and numerous studies to accompany this research. However the question still remains: how does meditation cause physiological changes in the brain? During meditation a specific set of neurons in the brain are worked like the muscles in a runner’s calf as he jogs along the treadmill. The further he runs, the more blood flows to his muscles and over days, months and years of training his muscles reshape and the fiber composition changes. The same thing happens in the brain. A flux in blood flow and activity excite specified neurons. The act of maintaining attention sustains activity in designated regions, working the neurons continuously like the runner on the treadmill. Therefore the brain’s grey matter begins to grow, changing its physiological shape. In addition to shape alteration, the release of gamma rays, which are used as a measure of brain activity, increases. (3)
Neurons and their pattern of arrangement and excitation are directly linked to behavior and function of our bodies. Therefore it makes sense that a change in neurological patterns and arrangements would affect the behaviors and bodily functions which they are attributed to. The vast number of studies that continue to show new benefits and results due to meditation lead to the obvious, broad and frequently asked question: to what extent can the mind control the body? Tibetan monks have taken this question to the extreme, demonstrated unimaginable control. Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine who was part of the mind-body initiation in the seventies witnessed Tibetan monks draped in thin, cold, wet sheets in sub-zero degree weather. Through mental control and concentration these monks were able to raise their body temperature and radiate enough heat to dry the wet sheets, covering the monks atop the chilly mountains of the Himalayans. (2)
If meditation has shown to have so many health benefits with very few medical drawbacks, then why is its practice not exceedingly more popular in the western world? I believe the answer to this question begins not necessarily in the biological field, but in the social and psychological realms of society.
(1) The Science of Meditation and the State of Hypnosis
(2) Benson, Herbert. Relation Response. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1975.
(3) Meditation Can Boost Your Gray Matter (Live Science)
(4) Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning (Science Journal)
(5) Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds